Friday, 27 December 2013

Friday Five: Holiday Beaches

City Beach in the morning
Nothing says holiday to me like sun, sea and sand - beaches are blissful; being able to walk/ run on squeaky sand listening to the birds calling and the waves crashing is simply a delight. Our recent visit to family in Perth led to a fair sample of local beaches. Here are my favourite:

5 Great Western Australia Beaches:
  1. City Beach - my brother lives here and can walk down every morning. Lucky or what? Niece Niamh also reckons it's a good spot to practice gymnastics.

  2. Aidan's birthday beach - I don't know its real name but this beach in Margaret River has got good waves for body-boarding and sand dunes for fitness training, is gentle enough to take out a kayak, and has ample beach space for playing cricket.

  3. Surfers' Point - also in Margaret River. I wouldn't surf here, as our hosts kindly indicate the spot where a surfer was taken by a shark, but I'm told it has 'gnarly breaks' -apparently that's a good thing.

  4. Gnarabup - a gently sloping beach provides a prime spot for swimming and sandcastle-building.

  5. Yallingup Beach - it means the place of love and is the home of surfing in WA.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Haute Cuisine (Les Saveurs du Palais) - Supremely Satisfying

Director Christian Vincent offers a delightful film which is as light and fluffy; insubstantial and impressive, as a perfectly executed soufflé. Hortense Labourie (Catherine Frot) is content to be a chef in Périgord with a farm, a menagerie and an elderly uncle to look after, until she is summoned to Paris as the private chef to the President of France (Jean D’Ormesson). The ministers are so arrogant it would serve them right if she simply refused, but then we would have no film, so she accepts and enters this beautiful, formal world, and the gourmet extravaganza begins.

She is given a tour of the Palais de l'Élysée, including the spotless kitchens with all the latest equipment. She moves among gleaming copper pans, printed menus and steamed tablecloths, and is given masses of directions and tips on protocol, but no mention of food. The men in the staff kitchen are no help to her as they resent her position in the private kitchen – they are macho and rude and call her Du Barry (after the mistress of Louis XV) – so if she wants to learn what the president likes, she has to deduce it by trial and error. She studies what is left over on his plate to try and understand his preferences.

Initially Hortense cooks decadent meals such as Savoy cabbage, Scottish salmon, Loire carrots – “I like things to come from somewhere” – but when she is finally awarded an audience with the president he says he likes classic, rustic food and begs her to “cook like my grandmother did; give me the best of France.” He asks for simple and authentic dishes without decorations – “I want to taste things” – and she gives him clams, cream of asparagus soup, fruit and pistachio tart, and Beef Wellington (which is called boeuf en croûte in France).

She has a sous-chef, Nicolas Bauvois (Arthur Dupont) with whom she develops a cute relationship – she insists that he call her by her name, rather than ‘chef’. Catherine Frot’s Hortense is a beautiful middle-aged woman with a ready smile and a twinkling sense of humour, rather than a Hollywood bimbette who would get the role if this were an American film. Although the chemistry in the kitchen is charming and appealing, it is refreshingly free from sexuality. Nicolas shares her love for food and its creation and gives her a sounding board to express her culinary methods and opinions – “I talk through a recipe – I can’t help it.”

The narrative is based on the true story of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch who became the first female chef to a French president, Francoise Mitterand. In this film it is suggested that the president can talk for hours about food, and maybe it would have been better for him to do so instead of heading into politics. He and Hortense discuss old recipe books and the passion that went into writing them; they bemoan that no one writes like that anymore. Hortense believes that food should reveal individual character and is disappointed by a dish that is well-made but lacking in personality: “anyone could have made it.”

Insistent that she can source better food than that used in the main kitchens, she sets out to buy her own provisions and we are treated to scenes of specialist produce shops selling exclusively cheese, poultry or fish. She and Nicolas experiment and have fun in the kitchen with food and menus, exploring recipes and combinations. Hortense teases him that a pastry chef must measure precise quantities while cooks use instinctive dashes. We may not be able to taste it but the colours, textures and detail of the dishes are gloriously filmed supplying a generous portion of gastro-porn.

Her downfall comes partly at the hands of the main kitchen chef who is upset when he thinks she has muscled in on his territory. She is in charge of appetizers, mains and cheese; he takes care of dessert, and he questions the categorization of cream cheese which he insists she removes from the dishes served at a family dinner. For a country whose revolution is proverbially based on the distinction between bread and pastry – “Let them eat cake” – this seems apt. When she is called to account for the fact that her meals are three times as expensive as those from the main kitchen she counters, “I work with people who share a passion for excellence – it comes at a cost” and she has justification in her claim, “A cook is not an accountant; a cook is an artist”. 

As well as the financial aspects and personal rivalries, Hortense must face the fact that as he ages, the President is forbidden rich food by his health advisors. There will be no more cheese, sauces, or rich or fat foods, and she sulks to Nicolas, “I hope you like working with fruit”. She must now run everything past his guards, which image is turned on its head when she has them running across the courtyard to ensure that dishes are delivered at the correct temperature. Her argument when she is told that she can still cook anything for President’s guests, but just not for the President himself, is that she wasn’t brought in to cook for ambassadors. Ultimately she cannot overlook her passion for the food for the sake of her position.

The film is framed by her experience on a French Antarctic base as a cook for the scientists and surveyors there. She runs by the beach and over the bleak countryside in an environment that couldn’t be further from the opulence of Parisian palaces. On her last day she tells the team that she has bought a truffle farm in New Zealand, combining her loves of the miracle and perfection of truffles with the beauty of virgin territory. Whether in decadent chateaux or primitive extremities, food is more than just physical sustenance. True fans of gastronomy will find much in this film to nourish the soul.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Friday Five: Nativity Plays

One of our Christmas traditions (well, we've done it twice, which makes it a tradition, surely) is to watch Love Actually on Christmas Eve. I'm looking forward to it again this year. Generally we are all boozed and emotional so we shed tears and sniffle through the 'You've also made a fool out of me and you've made the life I lead foolish too' bit, while laughing at the dancing around No 10 in socks bit.

I'm always bamboozled by the fact there is an octopus and a lobster in the nativity play, but fair enough I suppose. We never had anything as random in our nativity plays, but I went to a fairly conservative C of E school. Do schools even still perform nativity plays in England or is that considered too separatist?

5 Characters I have played at school nativities:
  1. A tree - it was a cedar tree, which is associated with healing, cleansing and protection. One of the Psalms (92, if you're interested) mentions that 'the righteous shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon'. The cedar tree is named from the Sanskrit word, 'devdar' meaning 'timber of the gods'. Junipers are also a form of cedar, and they give us gin, for which we are truly grateful. No doubt my six-year-old self interpreted all this through arboreal embodiment, thus negating the need to ever go to drama school.
  2. A shepherd - I got to carry Lamby onto stage, and on our heads we wore tea-towels, which we held in place with rubber quoits from the gym. PC-ness wasn't a thing in mid-70s Buckinghamshire.
  3. An angel - I wore a white sheet. You could tell I was an angel and not a ghost because it didn't cover my head and I was covered in tinsel.
  4. The Angel Gabriel - apparently this was a promotion, but I wanted to be Mary so I sulked, and when I was meant to say, 'Fear not' to the shepherds, I yelled 'Fear Me!' 'I am Mighty and Dreadful!' instead.
  5. The Narrator - l got to say all the words, which made me happy and kept me from terrorising any shepherds. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Remember Me: Forgotten pictures

Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt
National War Memorial
November 2012 - July 2013

Apparently a picture is worth a thousand words, and actions speak louder than them, but the small, sentimental exhibit at the National War Memorial references words, pictures and deeds.

For much of the First World War Vignacourt was just behind the front lines; a staging point, casualty clearing station and recreation area for troops of all nationalities moving up to and then back from the battlefields on the Somme. Passing military traffic came from the British, American, Chinese, Indian, Scottish, Nepalese and French as well as Australian diggers.

An enterprising French couple, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, established a business taking portrait photos. They took the photos in their stables and turned them into postcards so the soldiers could send them home, and maintain a fragile link with family and loved ones back home in Australia.
“Enough of war, we are now resting in a peaceful little village and it is lovely to lay in the sweet grass under the apple trees and forget the trials of war and think of home sweet home. Bill, Ern and myself had our photos taken today and I will send you one when I get them.” – Horace Arnold Parton, 5th Battalion, 1916
The negatives of these photos were discovered years later in the attic of a dilapidated farmhouse by a relative of the photographers, who generously donated many of them to the Australian War Memorial. There were over 4,000 pictorial records of soldiers on leave, tired and battle weary but having fun with their mates. AWM World War I expert, Peter Burness, says that two-thirds of these men would go on to be killed or wounded. “The losses were appalling. In all likelihood these images are the last photographs taken of many of these young men before they died.”

“By Jove! Australians! Those clean-shaven, sun-tanned, dust-covered men, who had come out of the hell of the Dardanelles and the burning drought of the Egyptian sands, looked wonderfully fresh in France. Youth, keen as steel, with a flash in the eyes, with an utter carelessness of any peril ahead, came riding down the street.” – Peter Gibbs, British War Correspondent, 1916
Members of a television news programme reprinted these pictures in a dark room, using traditional techniques on fibre-based paper. They saw the soldiers emerge from the darkness, and cleaned and silvered the images with selenium toning to create the silver gelatine photographs. This exhibition features 74 of these prints and 800 digital negatives, fleshed out with written diaries and letters as part of the museum’s collection. Many excerpts are from letters written to sisters, mums or sweethearts, asking for photo-mementos and news from home. It’s noticeable and slightly sad that there are so few letters written to dads.

Although the photographers did not record the names of these men, several researches have attempted to identify them through their uniforms. Other clues to their identity can be found in their epaulettes, colour patches, badges, rank insignia on uniforms, medal bars, ribbons and wound stripes worn on uniforms, and any kit or equipment they may be carrying. In many cases the battalion is known, as men for a battalion posed together, even though they knew their battalion would be disbanded.

British censorship on the Western Front meant that few such informal photographs exist outside the official record. Australia did not have its own official war photographer until 1917 and soldiers were not able (as they ewer in the Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles) to sneak their personal cameras into the war zone. The Thuillier collection fills a hole in the historical record. It covers many of the significant aspects of Australian involvement on the Western Front, from military life to the friendships and bonds formed between the soldiers and civilians.
“The brightest memory of the lot is that I have known real men. Men with the cover off. Men with their wonderful nobility of character, of mateship, revealed. It’s a glorious memory to have. To have known men as men... My mates! Memories of men! Memories of mates!” – Edward P. Francis Lynch, 45th Battalion, commenting after the war

Some men were members of the newly formed (1916) cyclist battalion who traded horses for bikes and pose proudly with their metal steeds. Perhaps there might be special sympathy for them from the riders of the Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders as they clatter over the greasy cobbles? There are pictures of bands playing instruments and some delightful images of people shyly celebrating the armistice.

A few of the photos have snowfall as a backdrop – between 3rd and 13th January 1917 heavy snowfalls hit the region. The Commander of British unit in Vignacourt issued an order to his men: “No snowballs are to be thrown at the drivers of passing vehicles.” That they could consider such amusements is evidence that they are really still just lads. It makes it all the more poignant to consider, “It is a poor land rich with crosses. A troubled land where brave men rest forever.”

“Many things perforce remain unrecorded. The friendships, strong and clean as new steel, forged in the desert sand or the Somme mud that will savour life for us to the very end.” – Albert William Keown, 5th Battalion, commenting after the war

Friday, 13 December 2013

Friday Five: Red and White

A couple of years ago I mentioned my love of red and white as a colour combination. Leaving aside the fact that red and white grapes make up champagne, there are still at least five reasons why those colours look brilliant together:

5 Great Red and White combos:
  1. Christmas - from stripy candy canes to the great jolly present-giver himself
  2. England - the red rose of the House of Lancaster merged with the white rose of the House of York to form the Tudor rose and the emblem of England
  3. Liverpool FC - need I say more?
  4. Strawberries and cream - one of the best and simplest food presentations ever
  5. Barbers' poles - curiously hypnotic
Looks good on E-types too

Friday, 6 December 2013

Friday Five: World's Worst...

Him Outdoors is a lift engineer. I mention this, for people who don't know, because it means I get specific running commentary when we ever watch any film with a lift scene. There are lots. Think Jason Bourne; James Bond; anything with action sequences...

I have never seen Towering Inferno but I am reliably informed that it has the least realistic lift scene ever. This is closely followed by Die Hard, which has many. I've seen it a few times and now even I am able to mumble caustically, 'that would never happen'. Incidentally, the scene in Mission: Impossible is apparently not only possible and realistic, but has actually been known to happen. I know, scary, right?

So I was thinking, who are the world's worst people with whom to watch a film, and have you ever done it? Leave me a comment to let me know.

5 worst people with whom to watch a film:
  1. Hackers with a computer programmer
  2. Vertical Limit with a climber 
  3. Se7en with a serial killer
  4. Rocky V with a boxer
  5. Any of the Lord of the Rings films with anyone from Queenstown (if they're not in it, they know someone who is, and they will point them out at every opportunity)
For the record, I have done all of the above except number 3. To the best of my knowledge.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Celebrate Now!

Jubilant entertainments
Make the most poignant memories.
The saddest I am is when
I remember happy days
We can no longer share. But
I’m grateful for the experience
For all they make me cry.

So, yes, I shall celebrate
Every birthday, anniversary
And significant milestone
With those I love while they live
Though the same occasions,
Like unforgettable grave markers
Will haunt me when they die.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Amour - I love it

Obviously a festival favourite, this French language film has been shown at Paris, Berlin and Vienna, among others and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2012. It is a powerful exploration of an elderly couple, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant), whose relationship undergoes severe strain when Anne suffers a stroke and Georges has to care for her.

The story is told in one long flashback, so the outcome is known from the beginning. Both Anne and Georges are retired piano teachers, and an introductory scene shows them among an audience watching a pianist at a performance. The film features a lot of talk about music, and lots of records and CDs on the bookshelves, but there is no intrusive background music. Towards the end Georges drifts into music in his mind and he imagines Anne sitting at the piano.

One of Anne’s former pupils visits her and begins to play a piece on the piano in the apartment, but the film is often silent. When Georges plays the piano himself, we can clearly hear Anne’s breathing. A cleaner comes and does the hoovering; other sounds are running water or the chink of a knife on a plate. To break the quietude, Georges does the washing up with the radio on.

Apart from the opening concert scene, the film is shot entirely in the apartment. There are close-ups of the landscape pictures on the walls, and further intimate images of Anne’s face as she is fitted with a nappy by a nurse. This silence and single set, combined with a very small cast could become oppressive were it not for the sensitive direction of Michael Heneke and the outstanding acting abilities of the couple and their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert) which flesh out this everyday domestic tale of ageing and family dynamics.

Anne’s incapacity is the result of a failed operation on a blocked carotid artery. There is only a 5% failure rate, but that is little comfort for the patient. Anne makes Georges promise never to take her back to the hospital, which he is willing to do in the early stages. She returns to the apartment in a motorised wheelchair, spinning around with rare laughter. They realise they still have many stories they haven’t told each other even after so many years of marriage, and their emotions intensify with their memories.

As Anne deteriorates, she becomes increasingly frustrated and grumpy. Georges tells her she will end up friendless and scolds, “What would you say if no one came to your funeral?” to which she replies, “Nothing, probably”. Georges cuts up her food, dresses her, takes her to the toilet, and washes her hair with a saucepan in the bath. He acts without any trace of rancour but it is clear that as he must do everything for her, neither of them has any independence.

When Anne tries to reach for a book, she falls out of bed and breaks a lamp. Georges calmly repositions her, and all the inanimate objects, mildly rebuking, “Can’t you call me when you need something?” Anne begs him not to treat her like a moron and insists that she doesn’t want to go on – not for her sake but for his – as she knows it will only get worse. His own fears are of being burgled or invaded and he worries about leaving the apartment to fetch groceries, involving the concierge and his wife who keep a respectful distance while supplying neighbourly assistance.

Hiring a nurse gives Georges some relief yet, despite his daughter’s urging, he refuses to renege on his promise. Eva reinforces the audience’s understanding of the bond between her parents when she tells Georges that she remembers hearing them make love. Unlike many children, she wasn’t embarrassed at the thought of her parents’ sex life but rather felt reassured, thinking it proved that they were in love and would always have each other.

Eva’s husband has affairs, which she is used to although her father doesn’t understand why she stays in an unhappy relationship. And this is the nub of the film – no one can understand the ties that bind, whether through marriage or blood. Georges tells Eva, “I love you as much as your mother” but his ability to juggle affiliations is limited. When Eva bemoans Anne’s state, Georges tells her, “Your concern is no use to me. I don’t have time to deal with your concern. It annoys me to see you breeze in here saying what’s right. Who do you think you are?” She is family.

Armour is subtle and stunning, saying so much in so few words. It is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and dignified, despite its somewhat depressing premise. We can only agree with Anne’s final whispered words; “C’est beau, la vie”.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Friday Five: TV Detective Duos

I was going to make this post about something else entirely, but then I heard this morning that Lewis Collins had died. Instantly I heard the theme tune to The Professionals in my head. It was one of my favourite television programmes as a kid.

I think my first childhood crush was on Martin Shaw (closely followed by Kevin Keegan - odd to think that I may have had a thing about perms?) but I loved everything about it from the opening credits, with the car breaking through the window, to the solid plot-lines and thrilling (to a young viewer in the late 70s/ early 80s) stunts and car chases. We used to play The Professionals in the playground, ducking behind doorways and running along corridors to fling ourselves on the floor shouting 'Cover me!' 

What stood out most, however, was the excellent characterisation, dialogue and chemistry between the actors. They seemed real people with a sense of humour and a past that influenced their actions, rather than just puppets mouthing the words to advance the story. Bodie and Doyle were among the finest TV detective duos I have ever seen, and they established my appreciation for the gritty/ witty drama I have admired ever since.

Apart from Bodie and Doyle (who are unquestionable leaders of this genre), I would also like to make a special mention of the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston/ David Tennant) and Rose. Their partnership across time and space was a powerful one, although they can't really be included in this list as they are not strictly detectives. 

5 Favourite TV Detective Duos:

  1. Sam Tyler (John Simm) and Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) - yes, there is Life on Mars. This was such a wonderful concept with brilliant acting, and the sum of these two was way more than their parts.
  2. Inspector Morse (John Thaw) and Sergeant Lewis (Kevin Whatley) - later Inspector Lewis and Detective Sergeant Hathaway (Laurence Fox) - the interaction between the characters in Morse was as important as the sleuthing, and the spin-off series of Lewis was equally (but differently) remarkable.
  3. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) - the reinvention of this famous duo was superb. Once again, individual talent is more than doubled.
  4. John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) - The Avengers was the stuff of my childhood dreams, and nightmares.
  5. Maddie Hayes (Cybil Shepherd) and David Addison (Bruce Willis) - the first two series of Moonlighting were the best thing on American television - the mixture of comedy and drama with witty dialogue and larger-than-life personalities was quirky and original. As usual, for American series, it went on too long past its sell-by date.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Two Gents: Many Parts

Two Gentlemen of Verona (Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe)
Street Theatre, 19, 21, 23 March 2013

Shakespeare’s comedies can be very confusing for a modern audience, with mistaken identity, cross dressing, clownish characters, exalted romance, and outdated themes of filial loyalty and banishment. This South African township theatre version, featuring only two actors, Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyebvu, has the potential to be even more baffling, yet their adaptation (along with Arne Pohlmeier, who also directed) is simply sublime. To paraphrase from another Shakespearean play, they have into a thousand parts divided two men.

In the beginning, Munyebvu (arguably the more cerebral of the pair) appears through the emergency exit door carrying a suitcase. Is he part of the play? Is he meant to be here? He is shortly joined by Munyebvu (a master of physical comedy), and the wondrous aspect is set. Immediately the audience is directly involved in the production as the actors include them – literally in the case of fleshing out the outlaws in one scene where audience members are ushered on stage and then moved and manipulated by Chikura and Munyebvu as they speak from behind them, putting words into their mouths.

The actors embody all of the characters of the play, changing between them with just a twist of a shawl, a flourish of a cloak, or a flick of a glove. These costume items emerge from the suitcase, which also features as the only prop and doubles as, among other things, a bath a boat, and a table. The diligent duo play everyone from Julia disguised as a page boy to follow her lover, Proteus, to Crab the dog with rolling eyes and panting tongue. A man playing a woman playing a man seems authentically Shakespearean, while a man playing an anthropomorphosised dog takes the drama to another level entirely.

Just as there is no divide between the actors and the audience, there is no class barrier between the masters (Proteus and Valentine) and the servants (Launce and Speed). The actors respect the language – Proteus and Valentine speak in blank verse – but they are not above making asides to the audience to ensure that they understand and are participating. When Chikura complains that Munyebvu has spat on him, Munyebvu explains, “It’s all these plosives you can see – when you get plosives, you can do it too.” When Munyebvu appears to be distracted, Chikura complains, “He always makes this noise during my monologue”.

As Valentine writing a letter to Sylvia’s lover, Thurio, Chikura exhorts the audience, “keep up; there’s only two of us.” Letters play a major role in the plot and are read out on palms and traded with high fives. Similarly rings are exchanged with a clicking of fingers. The pared-back performance is pieced out by delicious African rhythms played upon the suitcase, and an instrument that may be a balafon, while the harmonious voices of the actors swell the scene.

It’s not all a laugh a minute, however, as the play touches upon some dark and serious themes. When Valentine first sets out for Milan from Verona, he wants his friend Proteus to accompany him, but Proteus wishes to remain behind with his love, Julia. Proteus’ father orders him to follow Valentine, which he does, after many fond farewells to his Julia. In Milan, Valentine falls in love with Sylvia, the Duke’s daughter, but when Proteus spies Sylvia, he forgets his promised love for Julia and vows to win Sylvia for himself. The bonds of love and friendship are sorely tested. In an interview Munyevbu reveals that when he plays Proteus betraying Valentine, he has had audience members interjecting to tell him he is a ‘bad man’.

The most problematic and ugly aspect of the play is the ending in which Proteus, learning that Sylvia is not in love with him pursues her into the woods and threatens, “I’ll force thee to yield to my desire.” Valentine encounters this scene and is disgusted with Proteus but forgives him after Proteus demonstrates what he considers to be true repentance, while Julia, still disguised as a boy has also witnessed the attempted rape. This tragic scene becomes desperately serious as the character of Sylvia becomes a discarded glove.

It is tricky to reinstate the comic closure where the original couples are reunited and the production does not gloss over the dichotomy. The final scene is left to Sylvia and Julia to share an overwhelmingly tender and emotional moment without words but where looks convey action and thought in the most profound interpretation. Many plot devices are sacrificed to the development of character and comedy but the truth of the sentiments – love, friendship, constancy, repentance, forgiveness, and devotion (including the master and his dog) – are all emphasised.

For a Zimbabwean company living in Britain in exile from the Mugabe regime, the themes of displacement and enforced travel are powerful. The company are between boundaries and cultures with their individual experience of Diaspora. For four years they have travelled globally, including performing this play in the African language of Shona as part of the Globe to Globe festival.

The vibrant production of Shakespeare’s earliest and possibly least performed play is a triumph. The hour and a half flies by in the capable hands, mouths and bodies of one of the most engaging double acts I have ever seen.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Photogenics: Sometimes the Camera Does Lie

I know it is hugely controversial to suggest this, but excessive data surveillance may not be an entirely bad thing. Having realised that our Kiwi passports run out early in the New Year, we were very pleased to discover that we could renew them on-line. This is probably due to the fact that the New Zealand Immigration Department can find out anything they need to about us, from the fact that we pay our taxes to the books we check out of the library. Really, this doesn’t bother me. I am not ashamed to read young adult fiction or to vote for Libby Trickett on Dancing with the Stars.

Most happily of all, however, is the fact that one can now take one’s own photo – or rather, get one’s partner to do it in the kitchen – I’m not part of the selfie generation. Incidentally, is it just me (I know it isn’t) or does the word ‘selfie’ conjure up unwanted images of onanism? (I would recommend looking that up in an old-fashioned dictionary rather than googling it.) As long as it is the right size, you’ve got your eyes open and no encroaching shadows or blurriness, it should be accepted. You no longer have to go to those ‘special places’ (post offices or photo booths) and get them done, then take them to a judge or a veterinary surgeon who you have known since birth so that they can swear that it is a genuine likeness of you and all that.

Except, it is unlikely to be a genuine likeness, because you are still not allowed to smile. Now, admittedly, when I come off a long haul flight during which some demon spawn has been howling and battering the back of my seat for the past 36 hours, I’m not generally laughing and joking and distributing bonhomie to all and sundry. But smiling, at least a little, is my general default setting – especially when meeting new people, even if they are customs officers.

When I am not permitted to smile (i.e. in passport photos) Him Outdoors says I look like Myra Hindley, which is somewhat unfair, and also, I suspect, not conducive to ease of entry at passport control. I think I, like almost everyone, look better when smiling and animated. Some people look good in pictures, and these are people who are considered to be photogenic. Let’s take this to mean that they are bland and two-dimensional in real life.

Some of the most beautiful contemporary women – Kate Winslett; Toni Colette; Meryl Streep; Natalie Portman; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge – can look almost ugly in photographs. I believe this is because they are known for their animation, warmth and fun-loving personalities. Sitting still and posing isn’t their forte, and neither should it be. The more lively, energetic and vibrant you are, the more likely you are to be unphotogenic.

Once you think you are unphotogenic, it is doubtful that you are going to relax when anyone is around with a camera. You will probably have a lot of pictures of you gurning, looking away or holding your arms in awkward positions as you try to block the shot. None of these are going to be pretty, and that can only make the situation worse. Some of my favourite pictures of me are from my wedding when I was having such a great day and was so happy that I didn’t really care what I looked like. I relaxed.

Also, we had a fabulous photographer (Dennis Orchard) who was twice UK wedding photographer of the year. My other favourite photo of me, which I use for head shots at theatrical enterprises, was taken by a friend and professional photographer (Dan Childs) who has a wonderful manner and delightful way of putting camera-shy people at their ease. And this is a major point – cameras these days are ubiquitous, and they are often really good quality. But just because everyone has a camera on their phone, it doesn’t make them a photographer. Photographers understand light, angles, focus, composition and settings. And they also understand people and their feelings and anxieties. So often people are ready to blame themselves for being a bad subject, but they rarely blame the person on the other side of the lens – it takes two to photo!

Research I have read on these matters claims that symmetrical features make beautiful people who make good images. This means that no one who plays ball sports or fell out of a tree as a child is apt to look their best in photographs. I’m not really saying that every photogenic person is plain in real life, but I am saying that most exuberant, expressive, and adventurous types are probably going to be unphotogenic. This includes most of my friends, and I love you all. Here’s to falling out of trees and laughing about it, even if it means the camera is unkind!

Friday, 22 November 2013

Friday Five: Oz ID

It looks like the magpies have stopped swooping for the season, so I am back on my bike. As Him Outdoors and I cycled through the bush at the weekend, we looked around us and thought that we really couldn't be anywhere else.

5 Things that make you sure you're in Australia:
  1. Kangaroos bouncing alongside us
  2. Kookaburras laughing at us
  3. Eucalpytus trees
  4. Red earth
  5. Cloudless blue sky and bright sunshine

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A sense of place: writing the environment

A Sense of Place
Snowy Mountains Readers Writers Festival
Jindabyne, 31 March 2013

I have a friend in New Zealand who told me that the things she was most excited about seeing on her first ever trip to England were a meadow and a badger. She had read about them in childhood stories by Enid Blyton and others, yet she had never experienced these concepts. I wondered at the time whether authors knew that certain things were particular to their shores and people living in other places might not recognise them, and if they felt the need to explain certain physical details such as flora and fauna?

Everyone knows that kangaroos are endemic to Australia but Rose Tremain suffered howls of outrage and accusations of insufficient research when she put a vole in the Arrow in The Colour. She assumed that the little round rodent was everywhere, but it doesn’t live in New Zealand, and the veracity of her novel was ruined. By including such specifics of setting – the books’ equivalent of stage directions – an author may instantly expand or limit their readership. I loved exploring new worlds through novels when I was a child, but several education authorities now claim that children need stories set in places to which they can relate.

At A Sense of Palce, chaired by Lisa Sweeney, previously a manager of radio and television programmes across the country for the ABC network, four authors gather in a hotel in Jindabyne to discuss the effect of the environment on their work before a (predominantly female, as these things always are) audience of about thirty. It seems appropriate that we are in Silver Brumby territory; some of the most descriptive scenery I ever read about as a child.

Writing in a variety of genres – chick-lit, travel, crime and investigative journalism – all said that the setting is crucial to their work, contributing essential elements to what makes a narrative believable. One of the panellists, Barry Maitland suggests that profession may have as much of an influence as setting (he has studied, practiced and taught as an architect) but that is possibly a debate for another time.

Lisa Walker grew up in Fiji and Brisbane, and has worked as a guide in National Parks and taken people to build and stay in snow caves. She now writes and surfs near Byron Bay and says her books are firmly situated in a place. She admits that she is almost cheating with her latest work in progress, which she has set in her own house so she knows the site very well. Sex, Lies and Bonsai is set in a small beachside town and this suits her exploration of outsider themes and the difficulty of returning to a childhood home.

With her interest in zoology, the wildlife that lives in each area is essential to her stories. One of her characters asks, “Do you ever worry that all the wildlife will gang up and drive us out?” Walker also says that in one of her descriptive passages she writes of a person eyeballing a magpie with black eyes. She received a letter pointing out that magpies have brown eyes and that she should have known that as a National Park employee. She agrees that this is true but juveniles have black eyes so she wrote back with a ‘so there’ letter.

Details of the scene are immensely important to Barry Maitland in his crime fiction. He has written six books (with the same two detectives) and sets them in different parts of London. He describes the city as being a series of little villages, and each has its idiosyncrasies. He grew up in London and moved to Australia to head the school of architecture at Newcastle University.

His 2011 novel, Chelsea Mansions, is set among the golden postcodes of the extremely wealthy, as he says wryly, “There hadn’t been a murder in Chelsea for a long time.” The Raven's Eye, his newest novel, concerns the nature of surveillance in modern times and is set among the narrow boats on the Regent’s Canal. He writes from his memories of the capital but also returns to refresh details and he sees it through the critical eyes of a stranger. He says that people will always correct minor details or assert that they know the exact street about which he’s writing, even when he has made it up.

Matthew Condon agrees with the ability of the readership to identify unintended parallels. He claims that no matter what he writes, even if he were to portray an alien from an undiscovered galaxy, “My mother will phone and say, ‘will you stop writing about your father’.” Later, AJ ‘Sandy’ Mackinnon added that when he was writing his first book he couldn’t type so he handwrote the pages and his mother typed them up, editing and deleting as she saw fit, expressing that Great Aunt Mary wouldn’t like it, even though “Great Aunt Mary had been dead for twelve years”. On the other hand, some people don’t recognise themselves, which might be just as well when Condon fears they might take offence at his descriptions.

As a journalist and fiction writer, he has learnt the necessity of attention to detail in a short space of time and words. In the industry they call this a ‘colour writer’. He used to work on the Gold CoastBulletin but hates the landscape of the Gold Coast – there are murmurs of support from the audience for this dislike. Obviously the specifics have to be correct for his latest book, Three Crooked Kings, which is a true crime/ political exposé of police corruption in Queensland. He is working on its follow-up but says he can’t wait to finish with non-fiction as he has many more fiction projects in mind, with which he can be freer with details.

For AJ ‘Sandy’ Mackinnon place or landscape is not just a pretty backdrop but a challenge. He writes of adventures taken in new places, so this setting provides physical as well as literary obstructions. He also sees difficulties in writing originally about a place that others have already covered. Whenever he sees a new place he relates it to somewhere he has read about, from Narnia to the Victorian England of Dickens or the Dr Doolittle stories, and he refers to the “thrill of recognising a place that an author has explained”.

Having grown up in Wollongong, Mackinnon moved to England when he was eight. The family travelled by ship and when he returned to Australia two years ago, he chose the same mode of transport. The outward journey in 1971 (visiting locations such as Cape Town, the Canary Islands and Lisbon) fitted the storybook elements of travel in books he had read as a child. The return leg made him feel like an adventurer.

His travel books began as a correspondence with a friend. He wrote letters of 150 pages, illustrated around the edges because you have time to do such things on a sea voyage. Self-depreciatingly he says, “While everyone else was out playing sport, we were getting pale and writing letters.” Such letters are the forerunners of books because they are instinctively written to amuse an audience, so events are heightened and people turned into characters. He sees no necessity to keep a diary.

The elements of sea, islands and shipwrecks are clearly important to him as they are reflected in his latest work, a retelling The Tempest set on Iona, where the headmasters of posh private schools are at a conference in 70s/80s Britain. He says that “even in fiction landscapes are obstacles to be overcome”.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Quote for Today: I see you baby

"Don't need to shake my arse for you, cause I've got a brain." - Lily Allen in new song, Hard out Here

Friday, 15 November 2013

Friday Five: Legends of King Arthur

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee
I recently read The Quest for King Arthur by David Day. I love books about the legends of King Arthur and all the mysticism that surrounds him and his knights. I'm not so interested in the 'real' King Arthur and the historical accuracy but more in the way the legends have been appropriated and adapted to suit various causes at different times - in fact I wrote my university dissertation on that very theme. Every now and then I read another novel with the loose basis of the legends, and over the years I have built up a little collection of favourites.
Image by Alan Lee
5 Favourite King Arthur Books:
  1. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green - I loved his account which I read as a child, and this was probably the version that first set me on the Arthurian Way. He is also to thank for my interest in Robin Hood and Greek and Norse mythology.
  2. The Once and Future King by T.H. White - including The Sword and the Stone, this tetralogy had a profound influence on me (and Disney, as it turned out). I loved the writing and the illustrations by Alan Lee.
  3. Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory - one of the strongest bases of the stories as we know them and a firm foundation of my dissertation.
  4. The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart - comprised of The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment, this is an interesting view of events placing all of the power in the hands of the magician in the times after the Romans had just left Britain.
  5. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain - I liked the time travel and courtly elements and the trope of hindsight and engineering making the time traveller the smartest person in the room, but it proved to me that Americans don't understand tradition and so mock it instead.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Henry 4: Mess with the master at your peril

Henry 4
Bell Shakespeare
Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, 27 Feb - 9 Mar 2013

The point of Shakespeare’s history plays is that they are written about specific people at precise times and for explicit reasons – the clue is in the name really. So, while I appreciate Bell Shakespeare’s decision to condense Henry IV Parts One and Two into a three hour version, I fear they have lost a lot more than they have gained by this treatment.

The set of milk crates in a Union Jack formation, while effective visually and contextually – it is broken apart to allow characters to enter and depart – is an instant anachronism, as the first union flag of England and Scotland was not created until 200 years after Henry IV’s death. Instantly the entire power struggles, righteous rebellions and questionable route to claiming kingship is rendered irrelevant. Later lines, such as the usually gut-wrenching, “How I came by the crown, God forgive me. Plain and right must my possession be”, and “Lord knows what crooked way I have earned this crown”, are robbed of all potency.

At the interval, many of the young adults in the audience (I went to a matinee plagued with school groups) were asking each other what it was all about and did anyone know what was happening? Well might they ask, because most of the battle tactics, political and historical aspects are mercilessly cut leaving a hollow mess.

Harry Hotspur (Jason Klarwein), rather than being a worthy and brave opponent over whose dead body Prince Hal (Felix Jozeps) intones, “Fare thee well, great heart”, becomes a subject of ridicule. He is portrayed in commando gear; a macho action man, well-built and crass, whom Hal mimics and affords no respect. Hotspur’s impatience is translated as childish petulance and his banishment of his wife from his bed implied to be from homosexual motives and steroid use.

Although Henry IV (David Whitney) uses Jerusalem as a battle hymn, the fight with knives, chains and lead piping has no dignity. The attempt to link the Percy Rebellion or Northern Rising with the Cronulla Riots is cheap and illogical. Similarly Falstaff’s (John Bell) edited discourse on honour loses all impact because there is nothing glorious with which to contrast his cowardly actions. The lack of regal motivation is woefully absent and the speeches are bereft of any beauty and nobility.

So, what does remain? Director (and adaptor) John Bell seems to want to focus on the coming of age of Prince Hal from playboy Prince to shining ruler. There are two problems here. Firstly, the taverns of Cheapside and the company of Falstaff, Mistress Quickly (Wendy Strehlow) et al are meant to be attractive. There is nothing enticing about the pole-dancing joints and dingy bubble-wrap covered sofas and bus seats in which the young prince carouses. The tavern scenes are drenched in booze and debauchery and are tawdry and dull rather than appealing.

The rubber gloves and plunger favoured by Mistress Quickly are indicative of the proverbial bargepole with which one wouldn’t want to touch Sir John Falstaff – embodied here as a disgusting and greasy old rocker shambling about in an ill-fitting waistcoat. If he is meant to offer an alternative father figure of fun for Prince Hal, it is an extremely unattractive one.

The other problem is that is hard to believe in Prince Hal’s kingly qualities. In this performance he was played by an understudy and perhaps the original casting (of Matthew Moore) was much stronger. Felix Jozeps was cast as Boy (amongst other roles) and this would have suited him far better. He acts like the irritating adolescent in the Zits cartoon strip – all lanky limbs, floppy hair, ill-bred mannerisms and self-entitlement. When Henry IV berates his son, the king is far more dynamic than either character had been in the previous foreshadowing scene between Hal and Falstaff. With his feet on the sofa and slouching posture Hal is awkward in front of his father, and King Henry IV literally walks rings around him.

King Henry IV is harsh, bold and unfriendly, surrounded by men in suits who think his son is a waster – and they’re right. Prince Hal may want his father’s love and respect, but he doesn’t go out of his way to earn it. In his army costume and beret he looks like a Thunderbird puppet, and his hugging and hogging of the crown during his father’s death scene is pathetic rather than potent.

Hal’s eventual denouncement of Falstaff seems petty and vindictive rather than necessary for the health and future of the nation. We are not chilled as we should be when Falstaff claims, “The laws of England are at my commandment” because we haven’t been led to believe that the stakes are particularly high. Neither is there anything revealed in the portrayal of Prince Hal to indicate that he will “imitate the sun” and “show more goodly, and attract more eyes/ Than that which hath no foil to set it off.” It is impossible that this sullen teenager will become one of England’s greatest ever monarchs.

The production contains some excellent acting – namely Sean O’Shea who has crisp delivery as Shallow, and Yalin Ozucelik who brings a much-needed amicability to the loyal companion character of Poins. The frenetic band, incorporated into the action with the drummer seated on stage also enhances the pace of the action, but the direction is inconsistence with a muddle of metaphors.

The integrity of the ambushed fight scene is weakened by the introduction of German tourists for cheap laughs. Shallow and Silence are supposedly watching football (or soccer, as Australians insist on calling it, although the flags are totally wrong) adding unnecessary business to detract from their speech as though they are worried that the plot alone cannot hold the audience’s attention. The overall effect is as though the company don’t trust the words, even adding modern speech to the policemen and making lame reference to slices of lime in necks of corona bottles for the line, “There’s lime in this sack”.

Messing with the rhythms and beauty of Shakespeare’s language is practically criminal. Primary school viewers may enjoy the match the pictures to the words approach, but Bell Shakespeare are guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Monday, 11 November 2013

My Newest Favourite Thing: No Junk Mail

I bought this little sticker for two dollars and since affixing it to the letter box I no longer have to shovel screeds of badly printed paper advertising stuff I don't need and can't afford from there straight to the recycle bin. I feel like I saved a forest already. That is all.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Friday Five: What I'm Watching

While I wait for the new seasons of Doctor Who and Downton Abbey to arrive in Australia, I have been amusing myself with other television series. Upper Middle Bogan was excellent but has now finished. I will also mention Mock the Week, although I'm not sure it counts as a series, and Dancing with the Stars as the only reality TV show I watch. I even voted for the first time ever the other day - Libby Tricket, in case you're wondering.

I watched one episode of Masters of Sex, which was really good, but it's on a bit late for me. Similarly Sleepy Hollow which was fine until the programmers changed the time slot. I like to not watch flickering screens for an hour before bedtime. I started watching Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but after two episodes the badly-drawn female characters annoyed me too much to contimue watching. I also enjoyed the two episodes that I caught of First Crossings, in which historic pioneering journeys are recreated by Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald.

5 TV Shows I'm Watching:
  1. Whitechapel - with Him Outdoors or during the daytime when it's light - I'm not sure why I find this scarier than any other crime drama, but I do.
  2. The Blacklist - the woman is annoying, but the series features James Spader - enough said.
  3. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries - season two and we're back for more frock horror: such fun!
  4. David Attenborough's Africa - yes I know it's a repeat and I've seen it before, but it's Sir David; it's the BBC; it's Africa - what's not to love?
  5. Big School - mocking the genre of school sitcom soap like Grange Hill for never-grew-ups, it's awfully compelling.