Every day is too many days

A couple of years ago, I read an interview with Hilary Mantel in the Guardian, where she said that people would ask her if she wrote every day, and she said of course she did, she's not some kind of dilettante. That's the advice, isn't it? Read a lot, and write every day. Write through the times you can't write, or when everything you put down is a load of rubbish.

While you're at it, stick pins in your eyes, and jump off a cliff because your friend told you to. Otherwise you're not a real writer! (Real writers, incidentally, write. Every day.)

It strikes me as a very puritan way of looking at the world, very north American, very bums-on-seats-work-through-the-pain. By that metric, I am a dilettante, and I have always been a dilettante, which is not to say that I don't write most days, because I do - just that don't you ever want to do a thing for the fun of it rather than to tick it off a list? Can you not just enjoy wallowing in the shallows, or speed-swimming through worldbuilding, without it also having to be directly for publication? Can't it ever be about the input, sometimes, rather than the output - or since that's still some kind of quantifiable productivity, can't it just be about the nothing in particular for a while?

It is only with the coming of Past Tense that I have been able to honestly answer that, "Yes, okay, sometimes." It is much easier not to want something when you already have a bit of it. It is also only since I have been doing Quite A Lot of writing that I've realised that it doesn't just mean "adding pages to your primary work in progress". I've kept a journal for cumulatively nearly half my life. I have, within ten feet of me in my office as we speak, hundred of pages of irreverent stream-of-conscious notes I've taken while reading other things. I have eight - count them! - unfinished and/or unedited novels bouncing about my desktop, none of which I have any intention of coming back to. I wrote them because they were fun, and I wanted to practise. I'm a far better writer for their existence. (You wouldn't have liked me a decade ago.)

And aside from that, there are months of the year where I can't write a damn thing, but I go on long walks and read a lot of chapters of other people's books and skip to the end of crime novels and I've sunk a whole lot of energy feeling bad about that. Why've you got to hate it for it to count as work? Why've you got to justify it? Why does it have to have an obvious A-to-B path. Do you not remember as a teenager, rereading the whole four pages of wish-fulfilment story you'd written, adding two lines of dialogue to it, and feeling satisfied with that? You were going to be a writer some day, and when you were, you'd do this every day. Every single one.

This week, I have mostly been smuggling a notebook into the back of the cinema, and then ignoring it completely because there's something interesting on screen.

127. Sicilian Ghost Story (film, dir. Fabio Grassadonia and Antonia Piazza, 2017)
128. Duck Soup (film, dir. Leo McCarey, 1933)
129. The Eyes of Orson Welles (film, dir. Mark Cousins, 2018)
130. The Guardians (film, dir. Xavier Beauvois, 2017)
131. Jacquot de Nantes (film, dir. Agnès Varda, 1991)
132. Mildred Pierce (film, dir. Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Of all of those, the one I was not expecting to affect me so hard was Sicilian Ghost Story, which was not what I was expecting, and heartbreaking, and all in all a stand-out piece of storytelling. Here is the best thing I've yet found to explain why. Some people thought it was too slow. I say that 779 days is a long time. Sicilian Ghost Story gave me a bruise in my heart.

At the end of Jacquot de Nantes, just as I was going to clear up the cinema, I got chatting to an old man who had just been in to see it. I had time to spare, and spent it listening to him talk about all-night obscure film marathons he had known. These are the moments at work that I live for. The stories! They are the point of it all, aren't they?

Duck Soup was absolutely not funny at all hang on a minute why am I literally crying with laughter. Harpo is the funniest Marx brother. Fight me.

Running to keep up

117. Apostasy (film, dir. Daniel Kokotajlo, 2017)
118. The Apparition (film, dir. Xavier Giannoli, 2018)
119. Summer 1993 (film, dir. Carla Simón, 2017)
120. Hearts Beat Loud (film, dir. Brett Haley, 2018)
121. Tangerine Dream, Ricochet (album, 1975)
122. Tangerine Dream, Cyclone (album, 1978)
123. The Negotiator (film, dir. Brad Anderson, 2018)
124. Maurice (film, dir. James Ivory, 1987)
125. June Tabor & Oysterband, Ragged Kingdom (album, 2011)
126. The Great Dictator (film, dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1940)

...And that's us caught up, I think. A couple of albums short - there was a very long car journey with a prog enthusiast in the driver's seat, and I'm pretty sure we went through the collected works of Tangerine Dream, 1974-1978 (they didn't let up, did they?! That's a discography to make your eyes water), but those were the ones where I was paying attention. It's like jazz, in the sense that I enjoy it while it's there, but I really have no idea what the hell I'm talking about.

I remember when Ragged Kingdom came out. I deliberately didn't listen to it, because June Tabor's voice gives me feelings. I always thought a collaboration with Oysterband would be a very strange combination; I think they're at their best when they're being exuberant, but that's because I have no sense of subtlety. Ragged Kingdom is the sort of album I want to bathe in.

I'm not going to go into too much depth about the films: Apostasy and The Apparition were both religiously focused and both great; you should see them if you get the chance. The Apparition is French, about a guy investigating the claims of an eighteen-year-old girl to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary, and it was grossly mismarketed - it's way more interesting than any of the promotional material makes out. Summer 1993 was a slow-burner about a little girl moving in with her aunt and uncle after her parents die; I was underwhelmed until the last half hour and now I can't stop thinking about it. Hearts Beat Loud is a 90-min advert for Spotify, the sort of thing best watched in the background while you're doing something else. I wouldn't be surprised if it was actually designed for that.

The Great Dictator is very obviously made early on in the Second World War. Chaplin is a master of physical comedy, of course, and of visual puns, and of musicality. Chop off that scenery-chewing last speech, however; I want to say it's dated badly, but I don't think it has, and that's worse. Apparently Chaplin said later that he wouldn't have made The Great Dictator (which came out in 1940) if he'd known then what the concentration camps were really like. It's a snapshot from the past, then, isn't it? That brief moment of freefall, the only time a thing like that could get made. Five years ago, I would have said that The Great Dictator reads as naive. Today, with global politics being as they are, I'm torn. How easily naivete becomes normalising when you're in a world like this one.

The Negotiator (or Beirut if you're in any country other than the UK), followed by Maurice, is the second weirdest double bill I've inadvertently seen recently (after the Wilde biopic and 2001: A Space Odyssey). It's interesting to see how American foreign policy!thrillers have changed in the last decade - there's an essay to be written comparing The Negotiator with, I dunno, Argo or something. I'm sure we will look back in a few years and see how the concept of American-ness has changed, just like Britishness is changing. Pair that with Maurice, the extraordinarily beautiful story of a young gay man in the Cambridge and London of the early twentieth century, and what you have is a recipe for whiplash. It's based on an E. M Forster book - I'd mentally written off Forster as a little too achingly Bloomsbury for me to handle, also because life is too short for books about sad Oxbridge boys (looking at you, Evelyn Waugh). But Maurice has a happy ending. And I was wrong about it. And if this means it turns out I would have liked A Room with a View all along I'll be hopping mad.

This is what you get from teaching yourself English Literature, I suppose. Nobody makes you read anything, so you end up prematurely writing stuff off.

There is too much to read in the world. I am always playing catch up.

Other stuff I've seen/heard/read lately: John Buchan, who you may best know as the writer of The Thirty-Nine Steps but who I am convinced would have been my best friend in the world had I been born a century ago, wrote a volume called A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys. I found it in the way the best things are found, which is to say, accidentally going down the wrong aisle in the library. It is basically Buchan telling stories from history: there's Bonnie Prince Charlie going over the sea to Skye, there's Charles II hiding in a tree while the Roundheads go by, there's "The Great Montrose" (bless you, John) who he refers to as "the paladin of Scottish history". He's interested in the same bits of history as I am, and when I'm writing it, I aspire to making it that level of engaging.

Sauntering through the classics

This is mostly an "I'm sorry I've not blogged in forever, I've been writing a podcast" type of blog post, so let's just get a whole pile of things out of the way. They are almost all films, because I keep track of them, and also I've forgotten all the music I've listened to since, like, June.

108. *The Sound of Music (film, dir. Robert Wise, 1965)
109. The Happy Prince (film, dir. Rupert Everett, 2018)
110. 2001: A Space Odyssey (film, dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
111. Vertigo (film, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
112. The Leopard (film, dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963)
113. Whitney (documentary, dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2018)
114. *Robin Hood: Men in Tights (film, dir. Mel Brooks, 1993)
115. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (novel, 1966)
116. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (film, dir. Ol Parker, 2018)

A lot of things from the 60s, a lot of filling out some of the gaps in my knowledge. Vertigo is pants - be real, the BFI, and stop calling it the best film ever. It is stupid. Its ending is stupid. I like Jimmy Stewart but Vertigo is a stupid film. If anyone would like to argue with me in a way that uses the phrase "portrait of obsession" (as two people in fact did), I would like to remind you that consequences are also a part of obsession, and Alfred Hitchcock is fundamentally incapable of understanding how being stalked affects a woman. I also that same week saw about 50% of Strangers on a Train and I will never not be amazed at how someone who clearly loves Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier can come out with this kind of pish. Another era, for sure.

The Happy Prince followed immediately by 2001: A Space Odyssey is the weirdest double bill I've sat through in a long time. The former is Rupert Everett's Oscar Wilde biopic, and it was decent - although apparently arthouse cinemas are full of people with Capital-O-Opinions about Oscar Wilde, who knew? - and it was actually the first time I'd seen 2001. I'm kind of disappointed I only got to see it once, because I still don't know what I think of it. Good thoughts, mainly, but more formless than I'd like.

The Sound of Music - my theory is that The Sound of Music is the basic plot of Jane Eyre but with added kids and with all the things that made Jane Eyre subversive taken out. Like the Jane arguing back as a child, like the first Mrs Rochester, like the fire and the bit where Jane leaves, and nearly emigrates to Africa. It's the story beats of Jane Eyre, sanitised and made completely toothless for 1960s America. How do you solve a problem like Maria? You give her some decent career advice and don't send her places she doesn't want to go. Don't get me started on poor Liesel.

I love Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, they have a very dry sense of humour. Their series of detective novels are very forward thinking - I always find it fascinating and counterintuitive that a pair of Marxists should choose to write police procedurals. Of course, when they do, the police procedurals look like this - they're so matter of fact, and yet there's something under the surface that sinks its teeth in and doesn't let up. I took The Man Who Went Up in Smoke out for dinner, and it was a great decision.

But really, the reason that this list is so film-heavy is that I've not been in a reading phase, or even much of a staring-into-space-thinking phase, lately. But there has been a lot of writing, so I guess there's that.

I wonder if keeping this list was really the right thing to do.

Other things I heard/read/saw around this time: a lot of museum exhibits. The first eighty pages of White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, before giving up - not because it wasn't technically excellent, but because I caught myself giving it short shrift and no book deserves that. Quite a lot of history. No surprises there.

Oh! And Scottish results day was a week or so back. I'm still bursting with pride at all my students; they did so well. I know I probably would say that, but they did. Fantastic vintage, this one.

Past Tense is here!

If you're eagerly waiting for me to tell you what I thought the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was about a month ago, then I am sorry for keeping you waiting - it has been rather busy in these parts lately. Mostly because the end of Past Tense Vol 1 is now complete! Episode 6 is now available, and you can find it here. It's pretty good, though I say so myself.

The reason it's taken so long is a surprise Episode 7, which is currently the longest piece of non-fiction I've ever written by some short margin. It looks great. I am so excited for you to see it. (Which you will be able to do, on Friday 17th August.)

I shan't lie, though: it's also been one of the hardest things to write, not because the subject matter is difficult - although, huh, quite a lot going on in 1641 England, it turns out - but because the answer to "How many creative crises can one person have in one year?" is apparently "At least two, and by the way it's only the beginning of August." The last six months have not been a writing montage, friends - not even the kind that admits a small quantity of interim doubt. The last six months have been something I want to describe in a dozen different ways, none of which manage to explain what it's like to feel like you are taking the cogent, subtle, clever arguments of several dozen other writers, turning it all into a finger painting, and then showing your finger painting to people who've spent decades specialising in art. No matter that the specialists are all lovely (!!) and all seem delighted to see you (!!?!), but my, that had better be the best damn finger painting you can possibly conceive of. Think it's good enough yet? I'm not sure you understand what the word "good" means; maybe you've been looking at it too long.

And so I would like at this point to raise my mug of coffee in salute to the listeners of Past Tense, who are far more wonderful than I have given them credit for lately. And also to anyone else out there who does independent research, with very little direction, in waters that are murky and deep. Keep swimming. I know it matters if it's slow going, but also... it doesn't matter if it's slow going. Get in touch. I'd like to know there are two of us, as well.

from The Way It Is, by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

pasttensepod.com/episodes

Roots

102. Hochelaga, Land of Souls (film, dir. François Girard, 2017)
103. Show of Hands, Wake the Union (album, 2012)
104. *Show of Hands, Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed (album, 2009)
105. David Stevenson, The Scottish Revolution 1637-1644: The Triumph of the Covenanters (non-fiction book, 2003)
106. Conrad Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642 (non-fiction book, 1991)
107. Dead in a Week (or Your Money Back) (film, dir. Tom Edmunds, 2018)

I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before. I seem to feel Napoleons [sic] influence on our quiet evening in the garden for instance - I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together - how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripedes. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing - It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind ... I feel as though I had grasped the central meaning of the world, & all these poets & historians & philosophers were only following out paths brancing from that centre in which I stand.
— Virginia Woolf, aged 21, quoted in "Virginia Woolf's Reading Notebooks" ed. Brenda Silver (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), p.5

The doing of history is a love letter to a place or a people. If you love someone, you want to know more about them, and you want to know about where they came from and how they came to be themselves. So you read their story and if it doesn't exist yet then you ask them about it, and if someone asks you about it then you tell it. Hochelaga, Land of Souls is a love letter to Canada, to Quebec, to Montreal, and also to the doing of archaeology and the digging up of things and the passing of time.

Edinburgh is a place where history is a love letter. I started writing this blog in the café of Waterstones on Princes Street, looking up at the castle in the sunshine. I discovered last year that the top floor of Waterstones used, in the 80s, to be a gay club called Fire Island; the street itself was (I believe) built as part of the New Town in the 18th century. Some of these things are easy to find out about, and now that I know them I sometimes repeat them to myself like a bedtime story - knowing a lot about a place is not the same as feeling at home in it, but the two feelings border on each other.

Now as I hit send, I'm in the university library that looks out over the Meadows. I've been working on Past Tense this afternoon. I have actually finished episode 6; it's long since recorded, and waiting to go out. But there are complications - about ten thousand words' worth of them, in fact - and today I feel very small, as if I'm trying to do something very much bigger than me, and in the meantime here I am interloping in the library of a university I don't go to.

Knowing about a thing is not the same as feeling at home in it. History can be an act of service. These thoughts are going somewhere but I don't know where it is yet.

Other things I've seen/heard/read this week: Diaries. Diaries, diaries, diaries. Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and Naomi Mitchison and Willa Muir, and mine. Plath winds me up as a general rule - we have very different taste, but I wanted to see how she thinks.  I may have solved the mystery of why I don't seem to read as much as I did a few years back: this week I've read the introductions to, or chapters from, about six different books. My mind probably looks like one of these

The view from the finish line

96. *Palace of Holyroodhouse
97. Kate Elliott, Court of Fives (novel, 2015)
98. Art of Glass (exhibition, National Museum of Scotland)
99. *Oysterband, Holy Bandits (album, 1993)
100. Iona Abbey
101. *Christopher Priest, The Separation (novel, 2002)

Here's a thing I've been thinking about lately: a friend saw the film Hereditary and didn't like it. Apparently he wasn't alone - it didn't really click with the audience he was sat in. It occurs to me that this is something we accept with theatre, stand-up, anything live - if you get a bad audience, the whole thing suffers. But it's the same with cinema. I remember going to see Calendar Girls when it came out, with my mum. As we say in my family, between us we lowered the average age of the audience somewhat, but what I remember most is being two people laughing uproariously in a room otherwise silent. Think also of trying to watch horror films in an empty house, or having something convoluted and arty on in the background at a party. The ambience of the room matters.

My friend who saw Hereditary suggested that if your art is so dependent on the room, then maybe it won't pass the test of time. But I don't think that's true at all. There was a running joke last year about watching Dunkirk on a phone screen and filming Christopher Nolan's reaction on a 70mm reel. The experience of Dunkirk came from seeing it on a gigantic screen, with music so loud it made your eyes water and the bass made you feel like you were about to have a panic attack. Where and how you saw it mattered; that's what made it work. The best cinema - or at least the stuff I've liked the most - is a full-body experience, in a roomful of people with disbelief firmly suspended.

What that got me thinking about is how often creator intention gets analysed, and how little corresponding thought gets paid to audience experience. I've gone to a couple of museums and exhibitions in the last fortnight - as well as those on the list there was a sculpture garden on the Isle of Mull - and perhaps you will or perhaps you won't be amazed that the experience of wandering round Iona Abbey is completely different in blazing sunshine or in thick fog. That it matters if you read a book (that's the Priest, which is an old favourite) in three days in a whirlwind, or over the course of a month, ten pages a night before bed. A book that is built to be gulped down is not a bad book. Nor is one so dense that you read forty pages then swear off it for a week, then do that another nine times til it's finished.

In terms of Past Tense - which, look, I've been suffering from writer's block lately, so I'm chipping away it but it's going extremely slowly - a thing I'm painfully aware of is that lots of people listen to podcasts while they're doing other things. That changes how densely you can pack information, how fast you can go or how many names you can use before you send someone cross-eyed and they switch off never to return. It's a hard thing to balance. I'm never sure I've got it right, and now more than usual I'm wracking my brains over it.

Another thought, this one sort of related and on the subject of art exhibitions: the trouble with a lot of them is that if you can't tell if a thing is bad, how can you tell if it's good? Is the problem with lots of art exhibitions (and, especially, that "No your five year old couldn't have made this" approach) that they're focused on creator intention rather than audience experience? And if so, is that a bug, or a feature, and how?

Other things I've seen/heard/read this week: the entire arc of the podcast The Adventure Zone entitled "The Eleventh Hour", which is a more technically impressive piece of storytelling than it has any right to be, and has me mulling over what "verisimilitude" even means, as well as the possibilities and purposes of interactive storytelling. Edinburgh International Film Festival is now underway, until 1st July, so brace yourself, there are half-formed thoughts about cinema on the horizon.

Looking back

91. Pandora's Box (film, dir. G. W. Pabst, 1929)
92. Look Back in Anger (film, dir. Tony Richardson, 1959)
93. *C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (novel, 1953)
94. On Chesil Beach (film, dir. Dominic Cooke, 2017)
95. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (novel, 1918)

Pandora's Box aside, apparently this has been a week of English people grappling with their feelings! Saiorse Ronan and I have very different taste in films, apparently, so there's that - don't let me put you off On Chesil Beach, because if you're the sort of person who was thinking of going to see it, then you'll probably like it, but I wasn't, so I didn't. I sat and read The Return of the Soldier in the back of the cinema, because How Many Repressed Feelings Are Too Many Repressed Feelings.

Let's talk about The Return of the Soldier - it was published in 1918, before the First World War had even ended, and very short, and it's broadly about a soldier called Chris who get sent home from the Western Front with shellshock, having forgotten the last fifteen years of his life - including his wife and his dead two-year-old son - remembering only being in love with a girl he met as a teenager on holiday. It's written from the perspective of his cousin Jenny. This is not the sort of book where if you know the ending the book is ruined, so in the end he gets his memory back and the implication is that everything's going to be fine, for a given value of "fine" which almost certainly involves going back in the trenches, getting back with your wife who you don't really like that much, and leaving a very nice woman to an unfulfilling life of poverty and colourlessness. The Return of the Soldier is 180 pages trying to answer the question, should Chris remember the truth? Because the truth is significantly worse. Nobody is set free by it or any of that guff. It's a little puzzle box of a book. Worth playing with.

Apparently generations of critics decided that because Chris gets his memory back, the moral of the story is that Rebecca West thinks Freud works, hallelujah, it's all going to be okay. West herself said that the method of Chris getting his memory back was beside the point. I agree with her; this isn't a book about Chris, and it's not a book about Sigmund bloody Freud. It is about the women who have to manoeuvre themselves around an uncomfortable situation where they only have half the details, and also shellshock exists. It is, in fact, quite an interesting thing to read in the back of On Chesil Beach.

When I got out of the end of Look Back in Anger, I loved it, and I was chatting to a gentleman who emphatically didn't. "Why?" I asked him. "That was a relationship that should never have happened," he said. And he's dead right, of course - Look Back in Anger is about an awful relationship. It is, as the kids would say, Problematic. But that's what art is for, some of the time - poking the horrible thing with the stick and seeing what it does, why people would behave like that, why poor old Alison would come right back at the end, why Jimmy losing his temper manifests itself in those particular ways. It's an unhealthy version of The Dynamic, isn't it? This is what happens when your Absolute Nightmare has a lot of internalised misogyny and no resources, and your Sweaterboy's heart is too big and she thinks she can take all the punches. I am uncomfortable with all of this because I think we're supposed to sympathise with Jimmy. Which is to say, director Tony Richardson and writer John Osborne feel more akin to him than to her. Because they are. To me Look Back in Anger is an excellent example of a piece of art making a very different point to the one it thinks it's making. It is an absolute pisser to be a creative person with few outlets, no colleagues, no way of turning that energy into Something with a capital S. It is also - or so every flatmate I have ever had can probably attest to - an absolute pisser to live with that person. That's the story. That's, in fact, not too far away from what Phantom Thread and Redoutable are exploring - albeit the creatives in both those stories are very successful. Fifty years ago, you'd never have got either of them. You would have got Look Back, and the contrast is sharp, and I like to poke at it.

Pandora's Box is from 1929, it is a German silent film, with Louise Brooks as Lulu. I don't like femme fatales, or the tortuous knots that creators have historically tied themselves in to explain that the woman is clever, because otherwise all the men wouldn't have been ensnared like this, but she's also stupid, because woman. But I will put up with it because Louise Brooks has such a compelling face, and also there is a translated Jack the Ripper poster half an hour from the end which is one of the most hilarious "this is what we think the British sound like" things I've ever seen. I'm reminded of Hedy Lamarr - known for her beauty, but so incredibly clever and engineering-minded. I know very little about Louise Brooks but I hope she had people in her life who took her seriously.

Other things I've seen/heard/read this week: a month or so ago, someone put me onto The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose - it's a gigantic tome, with a staggeringly awful title considering that the subject matter is both innovative and extremely cool, and I didn't pick it up for ages. On Sunday, I went to take it back to the library and thought, I'll just have a go at the introduction, just for posterity's sake. Two hours later, I took it back home with me. It's going to take me a while to get through, but also it's a beaut.

Also, largely as a result of an encounter with Naomi Mitchison's war diaries, I am suddenly completely obsessed with Mass Observation. Sinister name, but there's an archive you could wander for days.

The good news

83. *Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House (script, 1879; trans. Michael Meyer 1968; ed. Non & Nick Worrall, 2008)
84. Jeune Femme (film, dir. Léonor Serraile, 2017)
85. Redoutable (film, dir. Michel Hazanavicius, 2018)
86. Wonderstruck (film, dir. Todd Haynes, 2017)
87. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (novel, 1926)
88. Amin Maalouf, On Identity (non-fiction book, 1996; trans. Barbara Bray, 2000)
89. St Andrew's Castle Museum
90. Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders (novel, 2017)

The good news - and it's taken about eighteen months, so hooray - is that my reading mojo seems to have come back. I keep a note of everything I read, and have done for years, and 2017 is the first year in a full decade where I read less than a book every fortnight. There are all sorts of reasons for that - a swing towards non-fiction; a few hefty projects; a couple of sizeable swings towards malaise. A lot of what I read last year was children's literature - Alan Garner and Diana Wynne Jones and T. H. White - and that's all very well, but there are really only a few writers I can read during the bad months, who I know will help me get back up to speed again.

Those writers are Dorothy Sayers and Adam Roberts. Sayers is comfort reading for me; I've yet to meet a Peter Wimsey novel I didn't like, and even when her essays are imperialist nonsense of the worst kind (like in Unpopular Opinions), I can't help but love her turn of phrase. A nice bit of cognitive dissonance to keep the old critical faculties sharp.

As for Roberts, I come back to his writing time and again, and every time it feels like I have to jog to keep up. I love it. It feels like a rarity at the moment, finding writers who are more interested in concepts than in people, in stringing ideas out and slamming them together than in eliciting sympathy. Adam Roberts is a one-man Large Hadron Collider of ideas, and I am here for it. In a bashful kind of way I feel like we think alike, in the sense of having a hundred different fascinations and a tendency to slurp up information about a dizzyingly wide range of subjects. Privately (and tangentially) I feel like that kind of intellectual generalism is the path of least resistance for me; like of course I do it, because if I didn't life would just be so much worse. It's bigger than that, of course: that's the very tip of an iceberg of scholastic motivation that nevertheless I see echoed back to me in books like Bête, like Jack Glass, like Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea. Maybe that's fanciful. I read The Real-Town Murders on a day trip to St Andrews, which is an uncanny sort of place, and an excellent backdrop for proofreading articles on archaeology and burning through two thirds of an extremely good book. The mystery format is a pretty good one for Roberts, who often (I think) seems more interested in the set-up than a satisfying conclusion. This time, he nailed the landing, A+, spectacular dismount. Read this goddamn book.

I've read some great things in the last few weeks. Let's take a breather and talk cinema. Michel Hazanavicius directed The Artist (which I have not seen) and OSS 117, which you have probably not seen, but which is a Euro spy thriller spoof staring Jean Dujardin and which is low-key one of my favourite films. Redoutable is about Jean-Luc Godard, in the style of OSS 117. It's bright, it's stylised, its tongue is firmly in its cheek. I saw it three times at work, and I would do it again.

Nobody else saw parallels with Phantom Thread - which I also loved - but I am interested in the fact of two films about creative male geniuses within a year of each other; that both of them are portrayed as dickheads, which is terribly progressive of them and a turn up for the books from, say, Whiplash; and also the fact that both films were ones I loved. Wouldn't it be nice to spend your life being exuberantly creative, telling other people where to stand, and then getting taken out for dinner and asked your opinion?

Jeune Femme is fine, but ultimately not terribly memorable. Three stars, you go Jeune Femme. (These opinions are my own and not the opinions of my employer.) I bet Wonderstruck is an excellent book which eleven-year-old me would have adored. As a film it is a wasted opportunity, made all the sadder by the fact that Todd Haynes made Carol which means he is definitely capable of, you know, pacing.

Back to the books. I actually read A Doll's House a few weeks back to teach it - I like it so much better than Hedda Gabler, which I think is the point of Hedda Gabler. That you can make good art with good points, without the characters having to be likeable. I am forever surprised that Ibsen was writing in the 1870s - he is so far ahead of his time. Teaching A Doll's House was a masterclass in how to talk to seventeen-year-olds about the patriarchy, and stagecraft, and the separation of author intention from audience response. Oodles of fun. Would certainly teach again.

What's left? Lolly Willowes and On Identity. I have thoughts about them both, collectively and individually, which I would like to give a little space to breathe. So I'll save them for another post.

Other things I have seen/heard/read this week: about 200,000 words of fanfiction, no I am not telling you what of. Quite a bit of Steve Reich and associates. And some British civil war history because I swear to you I have not forgotten it exists, and actually I'm doing quite a bit of work on it at the moment. Just very quietly.

Writing adjacent

79. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (film, dir. Mike Newell, 2018)
80. Ill Fares the Land (film, dir. Bill Bryden, 1982)
81. Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women's Writing (non-fiction book, 1983)
82. Rachel Aaron, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love (non-fiction book, 2013)

A disclaimer at the beginning of this one: at no point in the past or the future do my views represent those of my employer or anyone else, except where clearly attributed to them by name; my opinions should be taken only to represent my own perspective and not those of any other group or individual.

Which is to say, on this occasion, that it is not the cinema's fault that a week or so ago I watched The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society six times in four days. I can't recommend it. I couldn't really recommend it after the first watching. Plenty of other members of the audience had a great time, and I am happy that their lives were enriched. As for me, I've coughed up quite enough hairballs at the idea that a person - a very young-looking person - can write a whole book, of non-fiction, in under a month, based on two weeks of research. ("But Fiona! How do you know it took less than a month?" The opening scene is clearly in springtime, and the subtitle says 1946. When she sends the manuscript back to Guernsey at the very end, the package is dated mid-April 1946. The British postal service - or "the mail" as they insist on calling it, in this film, which is set in 1946 - is not that fast. I have seen this six times.) I, excessively late with my non-fiction project in progress as I currently am, am not the target audience of this film. Even without that, please allow me to assure you that it is in fact pants.

At the other end of the spectrum of island-based dramas with small casts, Ill Fares the Land was pretty good. It's a little-known TV dramatisation from the 80s about the year or so before the evacuation of St Kilda. Some of the accents are a bit exciting - apparently St Kildans sounded a bit Welsh? - but who am I to fact check such a thing. The history of St Kilda is one of those things that feels very otherworldly - on one hand, I want to know alllllll about it, and go there and poke around and find out everything there is to know about Iron Age settlements and medieval blackhouses, and on the other hand... the fascination of St Kilda has to do with its remoteness, its isolation, its distance from anything else. Part of me thinks it would be a shame to go barging into that. It's probably not a very academic way to think. But I do think it.

As for the books: I finally finished How to Suppress Women's Writing, and I have the pencil markings of an essay that I may or may not write on it when I get a bit more time - don't hold your breath, then, but if I do write it, I'll almost certainly put it here. On, again, the opposite end of some spectrum or other, 2k to 10k is a pep talk that I'm surprised I didn't get hold of earlier and which I certainly anticipate coming back to. Aaron is a very self-aware record keeper in a way I appreciate and aspire to. I love finding out how other people work.

Other things I've seen/heard this week: I deliberately ignored Lean on Pete because I was sure it would make me cry, but apparently it's very good and you should; another round of electroswing and adjacent (this is probably my most played of the last few days); and then there was Eurovision, which is the night of the year where I turn into a five-years-out-of-date trivia machine. On the other hand, however: Vikings. All round an acceptable (if not terribly outstanding) vintage.

Life's too short

...for many things, as it happens, but specifically in this instance for books you don't get on with. Having been recommended the works of Jodi Taylor several times by people I like very much, I'm forced to conclude that actually, I don't think she's my cup of tea. It pains me to say this, because lady time travellers are by their very nature exactly what I want to be reading. But alas, I have not been grabbed.

Oddly, I'm more at peace with that because I know that there are plenty of other people who really enjoyed Just One Damned Thing After Another. I'd rather think that enjoying a book is a matter of taste; it's a lot easier to say "Sorry, this isn't for me," if it really is about personal feelings rather than arbitrating on something's objective worth. I don't believe in worthless books. Even as I very much do believe there are things in the world I don't want to spend more time with than I need to.

77. Custody (film, dir. Xavier Legrand, 2017)
78. A Fistful of Dollars (film, dir. Sergio Leone, 1964)

Speaking of things several people have told me to see - Custody is one of them, and I'm passing that recommendation on to you, because it's excellent. It's in French; apparently it's Legrand's first feature film, which is amazing, and he had a hand in writing it, which is unsurprising. It's a masterclass in wringing conflict out of facial expressions, and painting empathy large - you know the father is violent right from the start, but you barely see anything until the last five minutes. And you don't need to. It's not a story about him - it's about the people who have to spend every minute of every day second-guessing themselves to try and stave off those five minutes. Custody is 90 minutes of an eleven year old boy trying not to cry. All that and subtitles is a bit of a brain-melter, and I want to watch it four more times.

As for A Fistful of Dollars, I missed the first half-hour, and I wish someone had told me it was a comedy when I went in. I can see why you'd love the Spaghetti Western aesthetic. That poncho though. Also, an honourable mention for the fact that I now have the music stuck in my head.

I've been slowly working my way through How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ. There are no physical copies to be got hold of in this city - apparently it's having a Moment, and getting a reprint. The reason it's taken me more than a month to read a 150-page e-book is that I get halfway through a chapter in a go and need to stop, go outside, and scream at the sky. It's a very frustrating book (entirely deliberately), and also fits in remarkably well with the flow of the rest of my thoughts lately. (For example: the unofficial Mookbarks cover star is Margaret Cavendish, who Russ evidently feels as much affection for as I do.)

It's hard to write quietly in a corner without peers. It's hard to know where to go, sometimes, to find people who know what you're talking about in the same level of depth. Maybe that's why I get so embarrassingly overexcited at other people's conferences.

More on Russ when I've finished with her.

Listening in

73. Red Raw (comedy night, The Stand, Edinburgh)
74. The Worry Dolls, Go Get Gone (album, 2017)
75. Amores Perros (film, dir. Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, 2001)
76. Crime Fiction(s): Victorian and Neo-Victorian Narratives of Crime and Punishment (conference, Scottish Centre for Victorian and Neo-Victorian Studies, Edinburgh Napier University)

What to tell you about this week? Go Get Gone is very 2017 and I like the fast ones on it the best. Red Raw is the beginners' comedy night at The Stand. I am not very good with stand up comedy, but a friend was in it, so I went along and she did herself proud. Ten shiny-new comedians in an evening is an interesting window into what expectations are of the genre. How is it different from off-the-cuff one-person storytelling? What subject matter are you expecting to see? It's interesting in the way I suspect the early output of creative writing courses is interesting. Some of them were great. Some of them followed established pathways so closely that the coolest thing about their sets was seeing what they think comedy looks like. Either way (and sometimes both at the same time), an unexpectedly thought-provoking evening. Of course the biggest question is the one I was asked (I think) ten times out of ten: how are we all doing this evening?

Alejandro Iñárritu is a very good filmmaker, and Amores Perros is a very good film. It is also very long - he seems to have done the patented David Mitchell trick of taking three novellas and smushing them together. Fortunately for me he is not quite as heavy-handed with the old whimsy as David Mitchell is (yes I will read Cloud Atlas eventually, but know that every thinkpiece about it ever makes me cough up a hairball, and I'm okay with that), but I bet there are a whole lot of dissertations to be got out of this. I watched it in a darkened room on a bright sunny day, whilst also reading a very interesting essay on identity and globalisation. The essay went rather well with it. More on that soon, I suspect.

And the last one is a neo-Victorian crime conference, which was everything that conferences ought to be, and I had a great time, and may have scared a few people off by asking them about their PhD theses and then not breaking eye contact for twenty minutes. I'm pretty sure the fifth row back of an interdisciplinary literature/history/law conference is my natural habitat. But why wouldn't you want to surround yourself with people who know about interesting things? I am the easiest person in the world to do outreach at. Sue me.

Other things I've read/seen/heard this week: an awful lot of recent Critical Role (but not quite enough that I'm caught up yet); one fantastic four-hour stint of a Dungeons and Dragons game in which mysteries were solved, peaces were brokered, and one gelatinous cube got what it deserved; a lot of folk music; and a Susan Sontag essay on art that I am irrationally angry at. Doing well.

Repeating myself

CS Lewis once wrote something along the lines of, if a book is worth reading, it's worth rereading. I'm not a great rereader, but I'm a pretty big rewatcher - my favourite way to see a film is twice in one afternoon, and then once again the following day, just to check. Bonus if I can knit or read or write notes on something completely different at the same time - I just like letting things filter through slowly. It's another piece in my media-consuming puzzle that tessellates with three years as a student theatre technician, watching plays stop and start in rehearsal, six times over a week, from the wings. I've never grown out of it.

That said, I have now seen Isle of Dogs five times, and it wore off after about the third. Don't ask me about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. On the other hand, you also get to see some super obscure stuff which often turns out to be great, and also I guess I should thank my lucky stars that I don't have to sit through a three-month run of, I dunno, Saw 47 or something. Ushering isn't a bad part time gig for recharging the creative batteries, all things considered.

So here we are.

69. The Third Murder (film, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2017)
70. Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin, Mynd (album, 2013)
71. Bruce Gilkison, Walking with James Hogg (nonfiction book, 2016)
72. Writings from Scotland before the Union (conference, Centre for Scottish Culture, University of Dundee)

I dragged my partner along to see The Third Murder on my day off, because otherwise I'd have missed it. It was a good decision, because I am here for slow-moving but philosophically-minded Japanese courtroom dramas. It has the sensibility of someone who understands what the space on the page around a haiku is for. 

I heard a track from Mynd about a week ago, and immediately fell in love with Hannah Martin's voice. It's a bloody good album. I have listened to it four times and downloaded their back catalogue, which is not terribly huge yet. I'm looking forward to it though.

What this does remind me of, though, is that I have a very definite favourite type of music (hint: it's British folk), and there are several places where I can absolutely gorge myself on it if I want to. In the spirit of which, Henry and Martin did a Songs from the Shed way back in 2013. Because of course they did. Listen to this, it's brilliant.

I've said before and I'll say again, one of my greatest regrets is having been born 200 years too late to get blind drunk with James Hogg. I like him; I like what he stands for; I like his sense of humour and taste for the experimental; I find him about 500 times more readable than Walter Scott. Bruce Gilkison is his great-great-grandson, wandering around Scotland and chronicling it in this part travel journal, part history book, part scrapbook. It's very personal, which I appreciate - I like seeing other people's thought processes as they discover things - and more off-the-wall than academic. Walking with James Hogg makes me want to climb up the nearest hill and breathe in deeply.

Last thing this week - here is a secret weapon, if you like dipping your toes into other people's specialities. Eventbrite is full of exciting conferences; often they're open to the public, and you can just... go. And sit in them. And, like, go to an academic conference, without being an academic or anything. That's how a friend and I found Writings from Scotland Before the Union last year - that and the friend in question is an actual academic. It was so much fun that we went again this year. I always feel like I've somehow got away with something, like I've talked my way into a place I'm probably not supposed to be. But the truth is that I just feel comfortable slightly out of my own depth, soaking up everyone else's enthusiasm. I just like people who have a thing they call "My Subject". I just like seeing them enjoy getting really technical about it. Quite like pre-1707 Scottish writing, and all.

That One Album

I think most people have a few albums that they've listened to more than any other, that seem to go with every mood. They don't have to be Dark Side of the Moon or whatever you happen to think the pinnacle of musical whatever is, they're just that one thing.

Mine came out around my eighteenth birthday. I remember hearing one track from it on Mike Harding's Radio 2 folk show - I'd just discovered that I liked folk music, so I listened every week with a notepad and pen - and then I went out and bought it and listened to it myself all summer. The album is Poor Man's Heaven by Seth Lakeman - not objectively his best, or even his most interesting, but it's my favourite. It's a decade old this year, and I've probably listened to it over a hundred times. It reminds me of live music in my early twenties, of festivals, of buses and trains and libraries and hotel rooms and anywhere I've been where I want something solid and familiar. There's not a song on it I won't listen to five times in a row, given the opportunity.

You probably have an album like that of your own. I hope you do. It's a nice thing to have.

62. *Seth Lakeman, Poor Man's Heaven (album, 2008)
63. NOW: Jenny Saville, Sara Barker, Christine Borland, Robin Rhode, Markus Schinwald, Catherine Street (exhibition, Scottish Gallery of Modern Art)
64. ARTIST ROOMS: Music from the Balconies – Ed Ruscha and Los Angeles (exhibition, Scottish Gallery of Modern Art)
65. *Seth Lakeman, Word of Mouth (album, 2014)
66. Public Service Broadcasting (gig, Usher Hall)
67. Hanneke Cassel, Dot the Dragon's Eyes (album, 2013)
68. *Robbie Williams, Swing When You're Winning (album, 2001)

I'm never sure how I feel about modern art - whenever I go and see it, I always find myself underwhelmed and feeling like I'm not Doing Art Right, then I come away from it with two dozen new ideas and all sorts of thoughts about what I've just seen. It's something about that combination of slowly walking through a (usually) quiet, clean space, with particular thought-triggers every so often - it reminds me a bit of landscape gardens where the idea is you walk through them, see various views and plants and statues and what have you, and it sort-of-kind-of is intended to guide you along a train of thought.

I went around the Gallery of Modern Art by myself, which I think is the best way to do it, or at least it's the way that suits me the best. I wonder what everyone else sees, what they're thinking about. I know next to nothing about the theory or the pedagogy around modern art. A brief look round the corner reaffirmed that my favourite Francis Bacon is still the sixteenth century philosopher. (Obviously.)

PSB over the weekend as excellent as ever, although apparently I have turned into The Person Who Sits On The Balcony At Gigs. Am I getting more boring, or was I just boring from the start? Either way: people who do interesting things with their tech at live events. I can't get enough of it.

Playing catch up

In this neck of the woods, anything from the middle of March onwards is countdown to exam season. This is where I spend several hours a day in the company of people half my age, and try to explain to them that it is in fact possible to revise for an English exam.

How? you might ask. I don't actually believe in memorising honking great chunks of The Great Gatsby, because quotations without context resemble the book like cellophane-wrapped Southern fried chicken strips resemble an actual chicken. And the examiner wants to know what you think about chickens. So if you happen to be revising for the type of English exams generally sat between the ages of 15 and 18, here are the things I think you should do to revise.

  • Read the texts again. All the way through. If they're novel-length or play-length, it'll remind you how everything fits together, and you'll be surprised how much you remember. If they're poetry, I often recommend learning them like you would do the script for a play you happened to be in - you don't need it word for word, but you do need to remember the order and the rhythm of it. (GCSE kids, pick ten anthology poems and do this. Higher kids, you have no excuse - learn the lot.)
  • Write a list of every linguistic, structural, poetic technique or piece of terminology you know. For each one, write down a definition, and a reason why a writer might bother using it. Sounds simple, but can you actually define "metaphor" or tell me what the point of alliteration is?
  • If you can possibly manage it (and I know not everyone can), take all your notes on character and setting and what have you using a pen and paper. This has the dual benefits of making them easier to remember, and preventing your hand from turning into The Claw when you have to sit and write constantly for two and a half hours.
  • Go and research the writers of all your texts. Think about what in their lives might have prompted them to write the things they did. (Why is Carol Ann Duffy so into her forgotten women of history? What might have prompted Robin Jenkins to associate nature with goodness, and technology with evil?) Take notes on them - they're all interesting ideas that'll give you something else to say if you get stuck.
  • Anything where you have to respond to an unseen text is about how quick you can be on your feet. Read a news article, summarise it in four lines, then write down what you think of it - do you agree with the author? Are they missing something? Have you heard anything else about the subject? Is it an interesting article? Why? That's one summary paragraph and one response paragraph. Rinse and repeat.

And those are my top tips for English revision over the next month. Bon chance, team.

I've not blogged for a month, so here you go, let's get mostly caught up.

51. *Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Read My Lips (album, 2001)
52. *Ricky Martin, Ricky Martin (album, 1991)
53. You Were Never Really Here (film, dir. Lynne Ramsay, 2017)
54. The Square (film, dir. Ruben Östlund, 2017)
55. Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (novel, 1934)
56. *John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (novel, 1937)
57. The Nile Hilton Incident (film, dir. Tarik Saleh, 2017)
58. The International Style of Muriel Spark (exhibition, National Library of Scotland)
59. Isle of Dogs (film, dir. Wes Anderson, 2018)
60. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (documentary, dir. Alexandra Dean, 2017)
61. Our Last Tango (documentary, dir. German Kral, 2016)

...Not quite up to date, but that's plenty for the time being. A few observations: in bad weather, I listen to Ricky Martin. That's a thing that happens. There may also have been some Enrique Iglesias. The Waugh and the Steinbeck are both things I'm teaching at the moment (see, students - if I have to reread them, you have to reread them). The Muriel Spark exhibition at the NLS is mostly brilliant for the number of handwritten letters it contains - I love other people' handwritten letters more than most other things.

And then it's been a month for cinema.

I watched You Were Never Really Here three times in the same evening, which while it would be socially awkward to do if you didn't actually work at a cinema, is exactly the right way to see it. Such rhythm. Such editing. Such atmosphere. Glorious. The Square was good fun but a little too long (two and a half hours! but it gets a pass because Claes Bang is very pretty), and The Nile Hilton Incident is superb and makes me want to track down director Tarik Saleh's back catalogue. The last twenty minutes turn the whole thing on its head, and I really appreciate that in a film. Isle of Dogs is, well, it's Wes Anderson, isn't it? Very watchable but it's not going to keep me up at night. Bombshell is a Hedy Lamarr biopic, and it's long overdue, and she's great and I had a great time. You should see it if you get the chance.

Our Last Tango is the biggest surprise here: it's billed as a story about the careers of tango dancers Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves Rego. It's partly about tango, but it's also partly about two people with codependent, all-consuming careers, who spend at least two thirds of it unable to stand the sight of each other. It was part of IberoDocs Film Festival, and rightly popular. I wish it was easier to find so I could point it at people. An unexpected delight.

Impromptu holiday

..of the kind where you sit and read quietly by a body of water for a bit, and also (because I am that sort of person) of the kind that involves walking a mile and a half each way in a downpour to go and see a waterfall.

It was worth it.

 
 

In the meantime, let's have at that media.

47. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (fiction book, 1915)
48. Pitch Perfect (film, dir. Jason Moore, 2012)
49. Atholl Palace Museum
50. Dorothy Sayers, Unpopular Opinions (nonfiction book, 1946)

Herland is for a book group, so I can't tell you what I think of that yet. Pitch Perfect is this generation's Bring It On, which I was not cool enough to appreciate properly first time around - and let's face it, I have only moved further away from the target demographic. I love little, local, narrowly-focused museum exhibits almost as much as I love learning about the early twentieth-century Scottish middle class. Which is quite a lot. As for the Sayers... I'm still chewing that one over. Onwards.

The Oscars happened this week. I wanted Phantom Thread to win, but on the basis that in no way was this the year that was going to happen, I'm fairly pleased with The Shape of Water cleaning up. Still think the people who thought it was insubstantial weren't looking in the right places. It's funny, isn't it, how something can look so different to different people. Like an optical illusion.

Other things I've seen/heard this week: the second half of Crocodile Dundee, the second half of Carry On Teacher (what can I say, it was a wet afternoon), and a re-listen of the first half dozen episodes of The Adventure Zone podcast, which you should certainly listen to.

Not being funny

42. The Post (film, dir. Steven Spielberg, 2017)
43. A Fantastic Woman (film, dir. Sebastián Lelio, 2017)
44. Lady Bird (film, dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)
45. C. V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace (nonfiction book, 1955)
46. *Steely Dan, Aja (album, 1977)

I have been thinking, this week, about women being funny. Partly this is because of a thread on a writing subreddit about classic comic novels; by the time I got there, every work listed was by a white man - mostly Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. But then I thought, who is there? There's Stella Gibbons and Helen Fielding and personally I think Muriel Spark is hilarious, likewise Jane Austen, but then what?

Of course to ask for "classics" is to shift the goalposts very much in Wodehouse's favour, so quite possibly I am asking the wrong questions. Suggestions welcome if anyone out there on The Internet has any - and if they aren't from the UK/North America then so much the better.

Three films at work this week, all Oscar-nominated one way or another. The Post was exactly as what it promised to be; it did what it said on the tin. Meryl Streep was her usual combination of velvet fist in iron glove; the New York Times didn't get nearly as much credit as it deserved... I wonder, most of all, when this was greenlit. Quite often I feel like Historical Yet Topical films like this are designed to be reassuring. You know, we've faced dire circumstances before, and we'll do it again, that sort of thing. Once upon a time there were civil rights abuses but then we made it better. Often it feels glib to me. The Post was good but then I look at the news and there is a funny taste in my mouth which I can't quite pinpoint.

Lady Bird was fine, capital-R-Relatable (I also was a mid-00s theatre kid, and it is v weird that semi-autobiographical film-makers are now catering to me with their own lived experience), but in my opinion all the best lines were in the trailer. I am not really one for a bildungsroman, but some people love them. Several of my colleagues are salivating over this one.

And so, it's interesting to me that the film of the three I had the fewest expectations for turned out to be - I think - arguably the best and certainly the most interesting. A Fantastic Woman is a Chilean film in Spanish, about a trans woman in the immediate aftermath of her older cis-male partner's death. It's by Sebastián Lelio, who is also adapting a Naomi Alderman book about Jewish lesbians this year, so he's already my new favourite. It was blurbed as "unashamedly queer" which sounds like something I'd generally steer clear of, but it was direct and interesting and very well told. I want to tell you that it's about life as a visible minority, rather than whatever the sideways implications of "unashamedly queer" are, but just trying to phrase that without sounding like an idiot is making me cough up a hairball. So instead I shall say that A Fantastic Woman is very empathetic, very kind, and - blurb be damned - there's plenty to resonate with even if you are a little bit scared by the monolith that is queer theory these days.

The next episode of Past Tense is eye-wateringly late - believe me, I am extremely aware of it, but I have been reading Veronica Wedgwood books cover to cover so at least you know I am trying.

And finally, I tried listening to some Steely Dan again after nearly a decade. Aja reminds me of my seventeenth birthday, although I didn't play it then. I don't think Steely Dan fart rainbows like some people seem to, but they fit with a certain mood, you know?

Other things I've seen/heard/read/so forth this week: I don't even know. I don't know where it's gone. I'm reading four books at the moment, on and off, and that doesn't even include all the history. Business as usual, then.

Thinking week

They sometimes happen. The weeks of noodling around with thoughts and no real input or output. That'll come a little bit further along the line.

36. *Flook, Flatfish (album, 1999)
37. *Flook, Flook! Live! (album, 1998)
38. *Flook, Haven, (album, 2005)
39. *Flook, Rubai (album, 2002)
40. Black Panther (film, dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018)
41. Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitter's Almanac (nonfiction book, 1974)

Black Panther was a genuinely good film, coming hot off the heels of ushering The Shape of Water twice in one day. (Apparently I am now the kind of person who comes out of working at a cinema and immediately decides to pay to go to a different one. No ragrets.) They're an interesting pair: one expects TSoW to have a truckload of politics in it, and yet it's very determinedly straight-down-the-line romance; Black Panther ought by rights to be a superhero film about a bloke in a skin-tight catsuit, and yet here it is with its nuanced political points, its celebration of African diversity and diaspora - it's a comparatively small point, but I am delighted also that Ryan Coogler seems to understand that you don't need 5000 nuclear explosions to make a climactic battle scene. All you need is a bunch of people with spears and an emotional connection you prepared earlier. He's only 31, and all. Someone give this man a shiny statuette and a blank cheque. (Also I am automatically inclined to like a film if it has a woman over 40 in it with a good speaking role. Give me Angela Bassett or give me death.)

A lot of Flook this week. This is because, in the absence of anything else, Flook is what the inside of my head sounds like.

There's literally no common theme here

29. Capercaille, At the Heart of It All (album, 2013)
30. Lau, Race the Loser (album, 2012)
31. Harry Harris, Andre the Giant EP (EP, 2017)
32. *Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitting Without Tears (nonfiction book, 1971)
33. The Shape of Water (film, dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)
34. The Belle's Stratagem (play, dir. Tony Cowrie, adapted from Hannah Cowley's original)
35. Peatbog Fairies, Dust (album, 2011)

You probably want to hear my opinion on The Shape of Water. It was weird, it was very pretty, it was fun but apparently less substantial than a lot of people were expecting. That's fair. I'm not wedded to substance. I once read that a romance story is one where the A-narrative (the main plot) and the B-narrative (the relationship subplot) are swapped. That holds true here: from a structural standpoint I think it's better to look at TSoW like that, as a story where the plot you expect to be at the front is actually at the back, and vice versa. If you want an allegory about the state of the world, you can find one, but it's going to be disappointing to you. Romance stories don't have to expand upon a fundamental truth about the world, just like crime novels don't, sci fi doesn't, horror doesn't. They can do that, but equally they can just do their own schtick. So there.

Musically this week, I am continuing with my slow-burn love affair with the voice of Kris Drever - Race the Loser is spectacular, I've listened to it through three times this week and every time I like it more. I've also finally got around to Harry Harris's most recent EP - Harry wrote the music for Past Tense. Speaking of people whose musical talent is like a luminous little object I hold in my hands. Re the Peatbog Faeries, Dust isn't as good as Faerie Stories, but it'll still do.

I first read Knitting Without Tears circa 2008, about the time I was really heavily getting into knitting. Elizabeth Zimmermann is one of those writers who speaks to you (or, to me) through the ages - she's like Naomi Mitchison, or G. H. Hardy, George Orwell, Dorothy Sayers, whose work I reread whenever I want to think hard and feel capable. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology and Zimmermann's Knitting Without Tears fall into the same category for me because they're both books I read as a late teenager, ostensibly about obscure-ish interests but really about how it feels to love your work and do creative things. I think everyone should read both of them, but I know they'll probably get scared off by the prospect of maths and knitting. That's okay. I'll champion them if I get the chance, and in the meantime I hold them both very close to me.

Other things I've read/seen/heard this week: about 50% of the Colin Firth film The Mercy, which is less interesting a story than it might have been if it had dared have a bit more bite; an awful lot of electroswing music while walking places very fast; a metric ton of Critical Role. I'm pretty sure that in 2017 I learned more about compelling storytelling from Matt Mercer & co than from anyone else, quite possibly put together.

Getting away with it

26. Clannad, Lore (album, 1996)
27. Loveless (film, dir. Andrey Zviagintsev, 2017)
28. Phantom Thread (film, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Phantom Thread has rather stolen the limelight at the moment, but I hope plenty of people go and see Loveless, because it's great. It's a Russian film about a couple going through a horrible divorce, when their twelve-year-old son goes missing. They're both unsympathetic people; their new partners are likewise; if the poor son hadn't disappeared he would have been packed off to boarding school because nobody wanted him. Between the snow, and the general atmosphere, Loveless has the feeling of a Scandinavian crime procedural to it - but without a detective, without witnesses, without a conclusion. What's left is what's the most interesting part of that kind of story anyway, the layers and layers of emotion that fit between the gaps of the procedural, of what it's like to live around something like this. I enjoyed it very much and have a mind to seek out Andrey Zviagintsev's other work.

As for Phantom Thread, there are a hundred and one hot takes at the moment. A friend suggested that it feels like a play: I can see that, by and large - and of course it's beautiful and blow me sideways about The Cinematography Situation and also, also, I just love seeing dressmaking - proper dressmaking where women have different shapes and skin that moves - on screen. I have two different reactions to the two halves of the film: I have to admit, in the first half, I was so jealous of Daniel Day Lewis's character it's unreal. Having the world bend itself around your creativity like that is a thing I could never have, and I wouldn't take if I were offered it - but can you even imagine living in a world like that? How productive one might be? I am reminded once again that one reason I am not and could never be Umberto Eco, for instance, is that Umberto Eco didn't have to clean his own bathroom.

The second half is more about how a person fits in that world without being completely squashed. It's unorthodox, for sure. But compelling watching. It seems to have split the crowd; personally I think this is the sort of film that might improve if you had to write an essay about it. You certainly wouldn't be short of material. (Also apparently I'm more fond than most people of writing essays.)

For me when I have to work, I leave my phone in another room, close the door of my tiny 8 ft by 6 ft windowless office, and put on some Clannad. Those times were few and far between in January, but I'm slowly trying to claw them back. There are worse lives to live.

Other things I've seen/heard this week: parts of the new film of Journey's End, which you can keep; the first half of the album Oh Pioneer by Duke Special. I like his older, more acousticky stuff better.

Berlin

It's tradition, now, for me to take a holiday at the end of January. Between the academic calendar (which, by the way, is different in Scotland from England, but some schools up here use the English system, because of course they do), and then the various festivals and what have you that really just can't be missed, the end of January/beginning of February is about when it has to be done.

So, this last week, I went to Berlin.

20. *Christy Moore, Live at the Point (album, 1994)
21. DDR Museum, Berlin
22. German Museum of Espionage, Berlin
23. *Bellowhead, Hedonism (album, 2012)
24. Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel, 1967)
25. Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin

(This is where I wonder what counts, you know, in terms of adding things to a media log. I want to mention exhibitions - which is why the DDR (i.e. East Germany) Museum, the Espionage Museum, and the museum at Checkpoint Charlie are here - but I also wandered up the East Side Gallery, saw things like the Brandenburg Gate, the various monuments around the Tiergarten and outside the Riechstag, stuck my head inside the Academy of Art... but this is pure housekeeping. I still haven't decided whether/how to add podcasts to the list. Rest assured, much walking occurred; many interesting things were seen. Berlin is great.)

The biggest thing I learned from the above is that museums have really come on in the last fifty years, and that the artistry of telling an interactive, historical story is underrecognised and extremely impressive. (How do I love thee, National Museum of Scotland; let me count the ways.) The standout here was the DDR museum which managed all that and a shedload of emotional resonance, in multiple languages. The Espionage museum was great right up until it devolved into James Bond stanning. Checkpoint Charlie could do with a revamp, to be sure, but it's still pretty impressive that the museum came into existence in 1962. What do you call a museum if it's of the present?

I have more thoughts about the collective storytelling of Berlin about itself, but they probably need to percolate a bit longer before they become anything useful. Right now, it seems to be a case of, "Here are the scars: we have lived through worse than this."

People have been telling me for weeks that I need to see the film of Picnic at Hanging Rock; I am sure it is great, but the best thing about Joan Lindsay's book is undoubtedly the voice it's written in. This is how I learned that "Tasmanian gothic" is a thing; if anyone has any more recommendations, sling them my way, because it's a tangent I'm very willing to follow.

Amongst all the new things, I retreated into my musical comfort zone. Christy Moore telling stories. Live at the Point is one of my all-time favourite albums. Seek it out.