Friday, October 15, 2021

A few lightweight book recommendations:

 

The following books are lightweight tomes for gentle, mindless entertainment – if you’re looking for something intellectually challenging, wet-your-pants funny or seriously thrilling, don’t look here.  But if you fancy something undemanding, a little cosy, with a soupcon of humour or a touch of the supernaturals, to read while you’re having lunch or standing in a queue, these will fit the bill.  And they’re all series so if you find you like them, there’s more of the same to be had.  All available as ‘proper’ books or on Kindle.

 

Deanna Raybourn

Lady Julia Grey series


Starting with ‘Silent In The Grave’, these novels are set in late Victorian England and feature the aristocratic Lady Julia, whose cold and secretive husband dies on the first page of the first novel.  Julia has a huge, eccentric family who provide a large portion of the entertainment. During the course of the novels, she gets herself embroiled in a series of mysteries and a will-they-won’t-they relationship with a Heathcliff-esque half-gypsy detective.  If you like gorgeous posh women with a masochistic streak, Byronic heroes, and a historical setting that encompasses London, India, Italy and even ventures into Yorkshire, you’ll probably enjoy these.  Humorous tone and mild peril.

Raybourne has also written a series based on a character called Veronica Speedwell.

 

Linda Stratmann

Frances Doughty series


Beginning with ‘A Poisonous Seed’, this is another female detective series set in Victorian England, mainly in London.  However, Frances, the heroine, is a less serendipitous detective than Lady Julia, setting herself up in business as a private investigator after solving a murder that is very close to home in book one.  Yes, there is a propensity for mysteries to be solved by the application of outlandish coincidence and sudden bursts of intuition, BUT that’s true of Sherlock Holmes and it never did him any harm.  I learned a few things about Victorian London from these books too, and there is an unexpected twist in the final novel (well, it surprised me anyway!).

 

Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library Series


Warning: contains fantasy.  The heroine here is a young librarian in a magical library – another name to add to the great librarian heroes of literature, the Orang-Utan in Pratchett’s Unseen University library and the Cheshire Cat in Jasper Fforde’s Bookworld  library – who, with her friendly and sexy human/dragon assistant, travels between worlds to safeguard the books.  Look, I didn’t say it made sense, did I?  But they are imaginative and well-written, so why not give them a go if you like this sort of thing?

 

Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children


I loved the first one, got a bit bored somewhere after that in the series but enjoyed the last two books (I loved about 90% of the series).  They made a film out of the first book, so many people liked it enough to buy it!  The basic premise is that Riggs built a story around a series of weird photos he found in secondhand shops etc, which is interesting in itself, but he used his awesome imagination to create an unusual and exciting story involving children with strange abilities, time-travel, particularly horrible nasties and an engaging hero.  He incorporates the old photos into the novels so you can see them as illustrations which is cool – it even works on Kindle.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Ongoing Wedding Shenanigans of Lou Wilful

 A Sight For Sore Eyes

I’ve sorted my hair out for the wedding (or TFW, as it has become known inside my head). I’ve been cutting it myself for the past two decades after a series of traumatic encounters with hairdressers. No, I wasn’t mugged at knifepoint by Vidal Sassoon, but it felt like it as I paid out large sums of money to stylists in the London area (you know who you are) and left their salons looking, on different occasions, like:

a)     1.  one of those Mabel Lucy Attwell children’s book illustrations;

b)      2. Velma in Scooby Doo;

c)      3.  Mick Hucknell.

At least hacking at my barnet with varying degrees of thoroughness depending on my mood and the amount of time available cost only the price of the scissors. I also applied hair-dyes at home, and I’ve tried every shade except brunette and black, so up until a week ago my hair was a sort of washed-out dirty blonde (which started life a month earlier as light auburn) with an inch of dark roots (at least it wasn't grey, astonishingly). It was cut into a shoulder-length style I think of as ‘sexily shaggy’ but is actually ‘middle-aged frump’.  I knew I couldn’t turn up to my wedding with this hair-do, as I would face ridicule from my sister, contempt from my niece, and embarrassment from my mother (it’s great having a supportive bunch of female relatives!). So, I started searching for a local hairdresser.

The first FIVE I rang were fully booked for months and had no appointments at all over the Christmas period (TFW is on 21 December). Who knew that booking a wedding hairstylist seven to eight months before your wedding day would be, as one hairdresser put it, ‘leaving it to the last minute’? 

Anyway, in the end, a friend recommended her hairdresser, only ten minutes away by car. It's a tiny salonette of a place, run by a magnificent and gorgeous woman called Louise, like me (well, in name anyway!). She could fit me in. She didn’t make me feel like Quasimodo’s ugly sister. She didn’t badmouth my hair-cutting ‘talent’. She was, in fact, completely lovely. She booked me in for a colouring last week and I was as nervous as if I was going to the dentist, but it was actually a pleasant experience. Who knew?  She coloured my hair expertly, cut it into a slightly better shape without cutting much off, and dried and curled it (a bit more curly than I like, if I’m honest, but P said it looked pre-Raphaelite – though he was looking at the back when he said this).

   

I even tried out the make-up I bought for the wedding, after a discussion on Facebook made me throw out my decade-old slap and invest in some new stuff. I can only wear certain brands due to allergies, but even sticking to the mid-range brands, it cost more than a hundred quid to buy foundation, powder, eyeshadow, blusher, lipstick, nail varnish, mascara and some new make-up brushes, and that included a £20 off voucher for No 7 and a free gift – so imagine my irritation when I tried it all out and realized that the foundation is a shade too light and makes me look like Morticia Addams, neither of the two lipsticks I bought work on me unless I go over them with a cheap watermelon-flavoured slightly tinted lip salve I already owned, and orange and gold eyeshadow just doesn’t look right on a woman in her fifties. However…

So, all I need now are clothes and shoes. She gives a hollow laugh…

I ordered a made-to-measure outfit from an online store. P measured me, which might have been where the problem started. The clothes arrived well before the deadline, though they were screwed up inside a plastic bag inside a small cardboard box which didn’t bode well. When I took the suit out (trousers, an embroidered top and a loose flimsy jacket, all in ivory), I couldn’t stop laughing. The top fitted ok but was several inches shorter than the photo on the website and looked more like an upmarket crop top than a bridal outfit for the mature bride. The jacket fitted too but was so diaphanous (ie, thin) that it was like wearing a cheap negligee. 

But it was the trousers that made me laugh. They looked like they’d been made for a clown. The Chinese seamstresses who made them must think that British women are a very peculiar shape. The waistband was around six inches too wide, so they would only stay up if I held them up manually, and the crotch was hanging down almost to my knees. When I rolled up the waistband until the crotch was in its normal position, the trouser legs only reached halfway down my calves.  I’m 5’2” and quite overweight, so you can probably visualize the shape of a woman who would fit these trousers.



I am now continuing my search for a suitable trouser suit in an appropriate colour, in a plus size, reasonably cheap. It isn’t going well. I’ve found several online but they are almost always out of stock in my size, or just out of stock (despite sometimes being described as ‘new arrivals’) . There are no department stores anymore in local towns and cities, and the risk of catching Covid-19 makes me reluctant to do a lot of browsing in actual shops.

And this is before I start searching for shoes…

             

Monday, September 6, 2021

A Writer's Opinion: book review

 

The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper

 

Books in series:

Over Sea, Under Stone

The Dark Is Rising

Green Witch

The Grey King

Silver on the Tree

 

Susan Cooper is one of those iconic children’s writers who has attracted a vast army of devoted fans. Part of the same generation of Oxford-educated children’s fantasy authors as Alan Garner and Diana Wynne Jones, she attended lectures by Tolkien and Lewis and was clearly influenced by their work.

              Cooper was born in 1935, and began writing her famous series while working as a reporter for The Sunday Times. She moved to the US to marry an MIT professor; after his death she married a long-time writing partner, the actor Hume Cronyn, until his death in 2003. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cooper gave the fifth annual Tolkien lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 2017. In 2002, Cooper was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. She won the American Library Association’s Margaret A Edwards Award in 2012, specifically citing the ‘Dark is rising’ series of novels. She has also won several other prizes including the Newbery Medal, the Tir na n-Og Award and the B’nai B’rith Janusz Korczak Literary Prize.

              The Dark Is Rising was made into a film in 2007 called The Seeker. It starred Ian McShane as Merriman Lyon and Christopher Eccleston as The Rider. However, it changed the narrative substantially, updating and Americanising the story, and this wasn’t appreciated by fans or by Cooper herself.

 

 


 

Despite being an avid reader of fantasy as a child, I didn’t come across Alan Garner until my late teens, and Diana Wynne Jones until well into my thirties. I only became fully aware of Susan Cooper in the past decade, and read The Dark Is Rising series this year after a recommendation from Ruth Loten, a fellow member of the Open University Write Club and a fellow blogger. My failure to pick up on these authors earlier is surprising as I always told people when I was around ten that C.S.Lewis was my favourite author and, a few years later, that The Lord Of The Rings was my favourite novel, so I would almost certainly have loved Cooper at that time. However, I suspect that I ‘discovered’ Susan Cooper when I was too old to fully appreciate her.

              Like Garner, Cooper is adept at creating a sinister atmosphere; there are scenes from the novels which stay in the mind long after you’ve finished reading. And like Garner too, her human child characters seem very slightly undifferentiated – slightly flat, generic middle-class boys and girls – mostly boys – who reminded me most of Enid Blyton’s child protagonists, a comparison I suspect Cooper wouldn’t relish. They are, of course, much more sophisticated than Blyton’s creations, but there is still a slightly stereotypical quality to their portrayal. She seems more interested in the folk stories and mystic mythology of ancient Britain, particularly of the Celts and Arthurian legends, than she is in the purely human characters (who I felt were actually rather unnecessary to the novels as a whole), and she weaves this material together deftly, conveying a richly imagined world.

I suspect that Garner is the better of the two writers, if I am honest – The Owl Service is a truly original work of genius, in my opinion, and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen series ia justly famous. However, Cooper has more breadth of writing experience, having been a journalist, novelist and screenwriter over many years. But there are three things I found problematic about these books. For one thing, I was uneasy about the lack of central female characters. Even C.S.Lewis, who was often guilty of subtle misogyny, has two girls and two boys as his Narnia protagonists, and the bravest and most central of them is Lucy. In Cooper’s ‘Dark is rising’ novels, there is only one female, Jane, in the central ‘six’, and the other powerful female character, the lady, only appears on the edges of the tales. Jane is beautifully depicted and I enjoyed her character very much, but she has a tendency to require rescuing – whether by being physically picked up and carried to safety by Gumerry (while her younger brother is expected to trot along on his own feet), or by being saved by one of the boys. Jane’s two brothers, particularly Simon, don’t actually seem to do a great deal to advance the story and I’m not sure both, or either, are really needed. The other female characters are either good ones, like Mrs Stanton and Will’s sisters, who are presented as being primarily domestic figures and sometimes a little air-headed and trivial, or tricksy creatures of the dark – unreliable, deceiving women like the pretty milkmaid Maggie Barnes, the apparently cosy housekeeper Mrs Palk or the superficially warm and caring Blodwen Rowlands. In fact, in these novels, as soon as a woman appears particularly warm and motherly, you know she will probably turn out to be allied to The Darkness.

I found the character of Will Stanton - and to a slightly lesser extent, that of Bran – very interesting and distinctive. The Dark Is Rising, the second in the series, is the best of the five novels, and I particularly enjoyed the chapters focusing on Will as an ordinary ten year old boy living with his large, appealing family, and beginning to realise he is special. This is of course almost a cliché of children’s literature, from Harry Potter to Matilda, but Cooper does it very well. Writing Will convincingly as both a ten year old child and the youngest of the mysterious ‘Old Ones’ is a very difficult challenge and Cooper doesn’t always manage it. Sometimes Will comes across as suffering, slightly creepily, from dissociative identity disorder, or even possession, but on the whole Cooper does manage to make him vivid and believable.  Bran too is a character who is both a human child and also Arthur’s heir, a boy of both the contemporary Welsh hills and also the mystical past of Camelot and Avalon. Cooper seems preoccupied with such duality.

Merriman (or ‘Merlin’) is the archetypal ‘wise but unnecessarily obfuscating’ older male figure embodied in numerous fantasy tales (think Gandalf or Aslan), a creature so well-known to a reader my age that he seems almost stale. He is at times a deus ex machina who steps in to rescue the children in a way that begs the question of why he doesn’t just sort stuff out without the kids being involved at all. At others, he seems curiously powerless and it is difficult to work out what his actual powers are anyway.

The lack of a larger female presence is probably a sign of the time the books were written (though Diana Wynne Jones had no problem with creating interesting female characters). Another was a problem with the plots. They are essentially ‘quest’ stories, with Will, the sign-seeker, searching for a series of objects which will help The Light overcome The Darkness. This is fair enough, but the tales are full of mysterious portents, comments about things that are foretold or destined, and it felt to me that this was a whole layer of stuff that wasn’t needed. Surely it would be more dramatic if Will wasn’t given the enigmatic hints about things that should or must happen, and just had to use his guile and courage to achieve his ends? I sometimes felt that the resolutions to some of the stories were a bit lame as a result. If things are predestined, then some of the tension is removed. I wonder whether readers with a strong religious faith are drawn to these books – the symbolism of light and dark is well-worn and clearly suggests a battle between good and evil. However, Cooper does make it clear that human religions are not part of the books’ central conflict.

I also felt that at times the plots contained elements that felt tacked-on, such as the episodes involving racism (such as the rescue of the Pakistani boy from the bullies and the subsequent conversation between Will’s father and one of the bully’s fathers). I wasn’t really clear about how these elements contributed to the plot.

My third niggle is Cooper’s tendency towards long-windedness. She has a wonderful writing style on the whole, though personally I find the cod-Medievalism at times a little wearing. She can certainly structure and convey sinister scenes, and build a vividly scary atmosphere. But at times, particularly in the final book, the descriptive passages became too much for me and I found myself skip-reading, just wanting to get to the end without the lengthy explanations and repetitive descriptions. I felt that at times the novels’ pacing was flawed.

I very much enjoyed The Dark Is Rising and think it is definitely worth reading. I also enjoyed Green Witych, where Jane’s role becomes more central, and The Grey King, where the Arthurian legend moves into centre stage. I found the first and last books in the series less appealing, though both contained imaginative ideas. I can understand why she has gathered so many fans and they can’t all be wrong – I think it is simply that I found the novels at an age when I was sloightly too old to appreciate them as they should be appreciated.

 

RATING: The Dark Is Rising series *** (probably four stars for the best of the series and ttwo for the very worst)

Key:
*****      highly recommended - a 'must-read'
****         good - well worth taking the time to read
***           ok - will help to pass the time in a boring situation
**            not very good -  just about readable but flawed
            not recommended - boring, offensive, badly-written or deeply flawed in some other way

Wedding update

 

Two declarations and hopefully no funeral


Our wedding has expanded slightly from our initial conception – having transformed from ‘cheap’ and ‘secret’ to ‘more expensive’ and ‘incomprehensibly complex’ – but it is still, essentially, a modest affair. Therefore, it’s surprising to me that it feels like a series of puzzles, riddles and obstacles that I’m slightly too incompetent to fully understand.

Neither of us is good at organizing stuff, but, in the past at any rate, I have generally been considered to be the more efficient of the pair, so most of the organizing has been left to me. And let’s just say that I’m not doing too well so far…

I’ll give you an example.

Have you noticed how, in American sitcoms and romcoms, within a millisecond of proposing, couples seem able to marry, anywhere they like, with one of their mates performing the duties of a registrar/priest after getting a quick online certificate? You never see any couple on TV having to make an appointment at the Town Hall in order to formally notify the authorities of their intention to get married and declare that they are not related to each other, already hitched to another or under duress, and that they are happy to have this information made public for at least 29 days so that anyone who disputes the legality of the marriage has the opportunity to come forward, do you?

I suppose this is the secular version of having the banns read out in church. I’ve always secretly thought it would be rather cool to have some breathless stranger arrive mid-service, like Bertha Rochester’s brother, shouting out an objection to the marriage at the eleventh hour: ‘LOUISE WILFORD IS ALREADY MARRIED! I HAVE PROOF THAT SHE MARRIED BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IN 2010 AND HE DESPERATELY WANTS HER BACK!’. It wouldn’t have quite the same dramatic impact, though, in the ceremony suite at the Town Hall.

My first error was trying to make an appointment by phone. I am so naïve! After dialling the number, I listened, for twenty minutes, to Mozart being played on an accordian, interrupted every 30 seconds by a pre-recorded voice which sounded like Philomena Cunk telling me I was the first person in the queue. The person before me must have had a very complicated query, or else Philomena was lying. In the end, I decided to make the appointment online, and – like many things I try to do these days – I did it wrong. I thought I had booked an appointment for 11.30 on a Thursday in August, but when we arrived, we discovered that the booking hadn’t worked.

‘But I definitely booked,’ I said, feeling the red mist begin to descend. ‘I had a confirmation email.’

‘It isn’t on our records,’ said the twelve-year-old boy behind the counter. ‘And I’m afraid our registrars are really busy today so there aren’t any appointments left. We have weddings going on all day.’  As if to confirm this, we caught a glimpse of a white-frocked bride scuttling past the end of the corridor; a similarly-bedecked bride and her groom had been having photos taken on the steps of the Town Hall as we’d arrived, and, as we were directed to the registrar’s office, we’d noticed another couple heading towards the ceremony suite. It was slightly surreal, like stepping into a peculiar dream.  If someone did want to burst into the ceremony suite to stop a wedding, they’d be lucky to get the right one, considering the conveyor-belt of happy couples.



‘But we’ve both taken days off work to come here,’ I lied in an outraged voice.

The young man looked as if he was about to go full nervous breakdown. ‘Let me go and talk to someone…’ he muttered, before hurrying off down the corridor, presumably to find a prefect. He was gone for some time while we waited outside the office, P patiently and me muttering behind my Covid mask as I was at this point convinced it was their mistake. Finally, he returned with the news that one of the registrars had agreed to interview us in her lunch hour so we had to return at one thirty.

Back home, I discovered that I hadn’t actually ever received a confirmation email after all. Clearly, the whole thing was my error, though I still have no idea what I did or didn’t do. Slightly chastened, we returned for the one thirty meeting.

We had to be interviewed separately as if one of us was an illegal immigrant without a green card attempting to engage in a marriage of convenience. It’s just as well we weren’t as I got P’s birthday wrong, twice.

‘I know it’s in January,’ I said, lamely. ‘And in the teens.’ Fortunately, the pleasant registrar had by this time realized I was a post-menopausal woman and put me out of my misery by telling me what date the man I’d lived with for thirty years was born.

She didn’t ask for the names of our witnesses, which surprised me, as P and I had once been witnesses at a friend’s registry office wedding (in another town) and we’d arrived late, having got lost – we held up the whole wedding as they couldn’t just use two other random people as witnesses (another movie cliché exposed for the nonsense it is!), as our names were already on the official documents. She did, however, want to know the names and professions of both sets of parents. I actually know very little about my own father and I didn’t think ‘possibly deceased roofer, pub singer and all-round fuckwit’ sounded right, so that was slightly awkward.

When I emerged and P went in, I had a vague unease that he might say things which contradicted my answers, like in that old TV programme ‘Mr and Mrs’ where couples used to reveal the fragility of their marriages based on their mutual lack of knowledge about each other. Perhaps they’d tell us we’d failed the exam?

While I was waiting for him, there was a sudden surge of movement in the corridor and several members of staff began half-running back and forth into the main office. Apparently, a female staff member had somehow fallen, badly enough I believe to lose consciousness for a few seconds and be unable to rise from the floor. A younger woman who appeared to be wearing a hessian sundress closed the office door very ostentatiously  as if she was worried that me and the young Asian girl beside me in the corridor might be tempted to force our way in to have a good old rubber-neck at the prostrate woman. A short fat man with an official-looking lanyard round his neck kept asking if anyone had phoned an ambulance. I’m not sure if he ever got a reply.

P emerged from his interrogation, followed by the registrar. She had to go into the office to get the card machine so I could pay the £70 fee I had failed to pay online, and as she did so we caught a fleeting glimpse of the prone woman’s feet, toes upturned like in a cartoon.

As we left the building, the short fat man was waiting at the door to greet the ambulance that was presumably, at that very moment, speeding through the streets of Barnsley from the hospital half a mile away. Dodging another bride, we stepped out into the August rain feeling the mild euphoria that accompanies the aftermath of any interaction with local bureaucracy. I think it’s caused by relief that it’s over. We were one step closer to our goal.

I almost tripped down the steps into the Cooper Gallery next door, where we’d decided to get some lunch and use up the remaining time on our parking meter, but P managed to grab my arm before I did one of my now-commonplace spectacular public falls-on-my-arse.   So all-in-all it was a day well-spent.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

WRITING PROMPT





Choose an image from the ones above to inspire a story or poem.
 

Flash! Bang! What a picture!

 

                                  

I have a confession. A few days ago, in the lovely, brightly-lit ladies’ ‘rest-room’ of a local cafe, I spent several minutes taking selfies of myself. The woman waiting outside probably thought I was constipated! And it isn’t the first time I’ve engaged in this suspect behaviour.

 You see, I have very few photos of myself from the past two decades, which coincides (for some reason…) with my getting older, fatter and less photogenic. P is incapable of taking a flattering picture of me – it might be deliberate mischief on his part, though it’s more likely just incompetence and age-related poor eyesight. I’m always mid-squint or half-turned away, or my hair is fluttering in a gale-force wind as if I’m wearing a wig that’s about to blow off. Or my glasses are skew-whiff so I look like I’m going for a bad  impersonation of Eric Morecombe.  Or I appear to have no neck, or three double chins, or an arse the size of Texas.

 I’m not kidding. If you saw any photo of me from the past two decades, taken by P, you’d think I made a living providing those ‘before’ photos for companies advertising exercise regimes, groundbreaking diets or wonder-drugs.

Or maybe P's pictures are what I look like...😦

                                 

Anyway, when I get married in December, I’m going to need some photos to mark the occasion, and it’s one of the aspects of getting married that I most dread. I’m short, fat, wear glasses and have uneven teeth – I’m aware this makes me sound like a character in a Seth Macfarlane cartoon, but it’s true. So I’ve been trying to take some selfies of myself to prove that I can look relatively normal. Large toilets in cafes are often well-lit and you can guarantee not to be disturbed, as long as you don’t take too long. They’re a perfect opportunity.

                               

I can see why people take selfies. When I was a teenager, my friend and I were obsessed by those Photo-Me machines. In our town, there was one in Woolworths and one at the back entrance to Boots. When we did A Levels at our local FE college, we were forever hanging round these machines, checking our change to make sure we had the appropriate coins, Once inside, we’d sometimes try to sit together on the tiny swivelling stool, designed for one person, and pull faces into the camera, sabotaging each other’s attempts at looking good. Or one of us would sit behind the curtain for the first two of the four shots the machine took, and then quickly duck out so the other could take her place for the final two shots. Alone in the intimate space, we’d both rehearse our sexy pouts and significant glances, our mean-girl frowns or our goth-girl grimaces (funny, we never tried out a 'pleasant girl-next-door smile' or a 'kindly-great-aunt expression'). We’d experiment with monochrome and colour options (I think one machine only did black and white photos – they were always flattering and made us feel like Ingrid Bergman or Greta Garbo). Our self-conscious waits for the damp strip of images to emerge from the slot in the side of the machine is an evocative memory of those years: the whole experience made us far more excited than you’d think it would.

My photo albums contain loads of these strips of teenage faces – though later ones, taken for passports or official documents, are much less interesting, showing serious, emotionless faces beneath a series of mostly unflattering hair-dos and different styles of glasses, which change over the years like a flickering zoetrope. Those teenage ones, though, are full of exaggerated life – huge grins, tongues sticking out, thumbed noses, waggled fingers, hugs with cheeks pressed together. Our faces look like they ought to have three or four exclamation marks after them.

                                   

Young people these days aren’t much different, even though the notion of someone putting hard copies of photos into a photo album would mystify the average teenager. Yes, kids, I used to take pictures with my Kodak Instammatic and send the spool of negatives away to be developed. I’d wait a fortnight for the pictures to arrive and it was always a thrill. Once, we had a second-hand polaroid camera which developed its photos ‘instantly’ (in reality, it took several minutes), but the film was very expensive. I later moved on to much more expensive ‘proper’ cameras and I currently have a digital SLR one which cost a fortune and does all sorts of fancy tricks – but, guess what, I mostly now take photos on my phone, like everyone else.

 Digital photography, and particularly the brilliance of mobile phone cameras, has transformed our attitude towards photographs. When I was a teenager, we couldn’t imagine not having to pay for film and developing costs, and being limited by the number of exposures you could take before you needed to replace the film. Now you can snap dozens of pics and discard 90% of them if you wish. You don’t have to spend ages mulling over what images to capture for eternity. And teenagers can use photo booths for what they were designed for – passport photos, illicit sexual encounters and drug deals.

Attitudes towards self-portraits have been transformed in recent years. The sense of embarrassment we used to feel seems to have vanished, as taking selfies has become simply an everyday activity which everyone does. In the early eighties, our visits to the photo booths were covert affairs: we’d feel vaguely uneasy, waiting outside the booth, and would glance around furtively to check that no one was watching us, as if people might see us as vain or self-obsessed, or wasting time and money. When I first got a camera with a delayed shutter-release function, I used to painstakingly set up the shot in the privacy of my bedroom, and I suspect I’d have felt just as horrified, if anyone found me doing this, as I would if they’d found me snogging my teddy bear. But, these days, our natural desire to capture what we look like has become commonplace and unworthy of comment.

                           

Many of us feel an overwhelming compulsion – whether we’re at a beach, nightclub or a well-lit ladies’ room – to snap ourselves in various attitudes of hyperbolic emotion and stick the results on social media, presumably to prove we’re fully engaged in life. It’s part of a general obsession with our outsides. When I first started going for interviews, I was always told I had to be very conscious of my appearance – wear the right clothes, look clean and tidy, have an appropriate hair-style, make sure my body language exuded confidence but not arrogance, friendliness but not smarminess. However, later, when I interviewed people myself, I always found myself distrusting those overly shiny young people, scrubbed up to perfection, who shook my hand with the right degree of firmness and maintained eye contact like robotic sociopaths. Fair enough, we all need a bit of coaching on how to present ourselves in interviews and other such formal occasions – but, these days, people seem to feel it’s necessary to choreograph their every facial expression. A friend told me that, when her teenage granddaughter was visiting her recently, the girl spent hours in the bathroom. My friend eventually asked her what she was doing in there all that time, and the girl’s reply was ‘Oh, I’m just working on raising my eyebrow properly’...

                             

I’m not immune, however. And I can understand this urge. We all want others to like us, to think we’re cool or fun or intelligent or sexy, and we all suspect we aren’t any of these things. So a snapshot of ourselves at least exhibiting the outward signs of coolness, good humour, intelligence or sexiness can seem like proof that – at least for one second of one day in our lives – we really were. And sometimes, of course, it’s true.

 I’m just hoping I don’t look like Eric Morecombe in drag on my wedding photos…

                      



Thursday, July 22, 2021

WRITING NEWS

 My story 'The Tall Man' will appear in the next edition of North American literary magazine, Goat Milk.