Friday, 15 December 2017

Top Ten Books of 2017

At the end of 2017, I wistfully look back at the end of 2016 and how amazing my reading year was. This year was tough in terms of reading because, honestly? I'm so tired. This year I finished a 10,000 word dissertation, completed my degree and started a new one, moved city, visited friends all over the country. Usually the summer gives me the time to read as much as 15 books in a month, but this summer was different. I was so mentally exhausted from the sheer amount of academic reading and work I ploughed through in the first half of the year, that I didn't read as much.

That's not to say I didn't read at all, because I did, and I read some great books too. I just started noticing I wasn't picking up my book as much, and it was taking me longer to finish a 300 page book than it usually was. It kind if upset me, but I knew I that I just needed this time to slow down. I haven't read 100 books yet, but I'm incredibly close and so I'm hoping I can get there by the end of the year.

A few honourable mentions before I begin go to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Chavs by Owen Jones, Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis, Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters by JD Salinger, and Poet in New York by Garica Lorca. All of these were way up there, but didn't quite make the list.

10. Gwendy's Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
This is a novella that King and Chizmar released mid-year, and I wasn't expecting much from it because I didn't seem to be enjoying much of the King I was reading anymore. But this was fantastic and I read it in less than a day. I just couldn't stop. Something about it reminded me of those King books I used to love and get completely lost it - and this novella had it. It's about a girl who one day meets a mysterious man on a clifftop, and that's all I'll say. Find out the rest yourself.

9. Rules of Attraction - Bret Easton Ellis
Number nine is actually every Bret Easton Ellis book ever because I read the entirety of his works in 2017. But for some reason, Rules of Attraction was the one I had the most fun with, and so it's this one that's made the list. It's a campus novel, following three narrators as they go through college, meeting each other, drinking too much, partying and sleeping with whoever they want. It's funny but also depressing, and the little references to his other novels make it so worth while for people who love cameos.

8. The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This book actually screwed me up. It's the first thing I ever read from Dostoevsky and I'm actually glad I began with this one. For those of you who don't know, I'm really intrigued by the idea of the uncanny and doubling. Freud talks a lot about it which is quite interesting, but most of the theory on this comes from stuff about the Gothic. Anyway, in this story, a man discovers that his exact double is working at the same firm as he, but he's better than him in every single way. It's an amazing existentialist extravaganza and gave me a mental breakdown but I loved it.

7. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
A story that has stuck with me ever since I read it. Malcolm X is a figure you see talked about everywhere, but I think very few people know about his backstory and his journey to becoming the person seen in the media. This book gives you that insight, dealing with his time as a teenager in the ghetto, and about his religious experiences and trip to Mecca. All of it was fascinating, especially from a race relations point of view. I couldn't stop reading because his journey was captivating and took him to so many places, and it allows you to confront points of view you might not necessarily agree with, but want to learn more about.

6. The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
I can't even sum this novel up into words, but I'll try. It's a Russian absurdist novel about when the Devil comes to the city and starts messing with everyone's lives, and there's also a love story going on between a writer in a mental institution and the Margarita, and there's this whole Jesus and Pilate subplot and it's absolutely crazy but one of the best written things I have ever read. You just need to read this, as crazy as it sounds. It will change your life.

5. Julius Caeser by William Shakespeare
I saw this play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the summer and it was probably one of the best productions I've ever seen there. I went back and read the play and it was just one of the most exciting, complex and engaging Shakespeare plays I've read. It's both a hopefully and tragic story showing the rebellion led by Brutus against Julius Caeser. It is followed closely by Anthony and Cleopatra which I didn't like as much, but this play is now up there as one of my favourite Shakespeares.

4. Selected Poems 1923 - 1958 by EE Cummings
I told myself I wanted to read more poetry in 2017, and so I did. I'd had this collection on my shelf for the longest time, and I was really feeling in the mood for it. Cummings poetry is so unique in that he refrains from using punctuation and capital letters, opting for poetry which looks as though it has been scrawled messily onto the page. But the rhythm it evokes is absolutely wonderful, and Cummings voice is both cynical and romantic in a way that I really needed at the time. He writes a lot about romance, war, and patriotism, and is one of the best American poets of the 20th century. If you haven't read his poetry before, I would recommend this collection as a way to get into it. It was absolutely stunning.

3. Inferno by Dante
More poetry! I joint read this with a close friend and the two of us fell in love with it. Dante's Italian classic epic poem is about a man who gets taken down through the circles of hell and finally to Satan himself. I'll be honest, it was actually terrifying. My edition came with a map which showed you all of the circles he passed through as he described them. Once he got to the centre was legitimately shaking because it was so scary. But the translation I had was wonderful, and the story has been an inspiration for so many modern stories.

2. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
I would read this book at 1am in the morning. I would read it whilst I was eating. I would read it whilst I was walking. This novel was freaking incredible and I didn't want it to end but at the same time I couldn't stop reading because I was so addicted to the writing, the setting and the characters. McInerney was writing around the same time as Bret Easton Ellis and the two were casual friends. This novel is about a young, aspiring writer living in New York who can't resist the hedonism around him. It is actually the best thing in the whole world. At first I was sceptic because it's written in second person, but once I was in, I was IN. It's so good. You just need to read this now okay.

1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
THIS BOOK. Obviously, it is the best thing I have read all year. I remember being half way through and reading it at the train station and just being completely blown away by what I was reading. Some of the sentences were just so beautiful that I had to underline them and write them down somewhere. This is about a black man living in New York in America, and having to navigate the city amongst the battle for Black Civil Rights. It is an incredible novel, filled with the existential tones of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, as well as taking the jazz age and space of New York in with it. It contains probably one of the most powerful speeches I have ever read in my life. You need to do yourself and favour and read this incredible book because I will never stop talking about this for the rest of my life.

So there you have it, the best books that I read this year. I highly recommend looking at every single one of these books, because they have stayed with me for the best reasons. Though I wasn't really happy with my reading this year, on reflection I find that I've still discovered some gems that have influenced my reading life for the better.

I hope everyone has a good year and that you read some incredible books too. All the best for the books ahead.

Rachel x

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Wittenberg: An Extract

He took my hand on the walk back to my apartment. It was so bony and fragile that it felt anything but comforting – instead it reminded me that he probably wasn’t eating, wasn’t leaving the house, wasn’t getting up from the chair in the corner of his room. Yet I could feel what it meant to him to touch somebody again. I wondered how long it had been since he’d seen Adora; from her diary I later found that since the Chancellor’s death he had been ignoring her phone calls, as with the rest of us. She’d phoned him every day at first, then less, until Maria finally answered and told her what was going on and that she shouldn’t take it personally.
I felt very sorry for Adora during all of this. it was the first time that I cried whilst reading her diary. She had sat for weeks believing that something was wrong with her, trying to figure out ways to see him, wondering if she should drop by at his house. But she wasn’t brave enough. Not back then.
The sky had started to turn dark behind us, but the colour we walked towards was lilac. It illuminated Gideon’s face in a way that didn’t look right. I’d always been jealous of the warm tones of his skin and the gentle creases around his eyes whenever he laughed. It made him look alive. This lilac made him glow, but it was a ghostly glow. The colour his father’s face had been just hours earlier.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” he said, keeping his eyes trained on Kingsley who was dancing his way down the road in front of us. “I don’t know how long I would’ve stayed there. I didn’t know what I needed.”
I shrugged. “We were worried about you.”
“Don’t be sorry. You needed to be upset, that’s fine. Just don’t ignore us next time.”
He let go of my hand at this point, and darted forward towards Kingsley. Gideon vaulted himself onto his shoulders and the two of them fell forwards in tangle of limbs. I wondered whether Kingsley was sober yet or if he was back to his normal school-boyish brashness. The whole movement made me fearful to break his heart. He’d escaped the house to escape his father – not for good, of course, but just for a moment. Just for now, we had nothing to do with the Chancellor or Maria or Claude and for a while he could pretend nothing was as insane as it was. Knowing Gideon, he’d hate himself afterwards for trying to escape, but whilst he was away from it I could see in his eyes that it’s what he needed.
Lorcan read me – he was good at that. “Are you still going to tell him?”
“I can’t not,” I said, hushed, although Kingsley’s laughter probably drowned me out anyway. “He needs to know, Lorcan. There’s something not right about him. He’s never been upset about something like this in his life. Perhaps it’ll give him closure.”
“Or perhaps it’ll open a fresh wound.”
“Can’t you just have some optimism about this whole situation, please?”
“Hey,” He grinned. His teeth were so white against the blackness of his skin that his smile always dazzled me for a moment before I caught myself. “I just want you to blame yourself and not me if it all goes wrong.”
I clapped him on the back. “Wow. You’re a good friend man.”
The lights had been left on in my apartment and so my windows were illuminated to the far side of the street. I didn’t even remember them being on when we left but they must have been. In any case, it made me feel better to walk into a flat that hadn’t been sitting in the dark for hours, and it didn’t take long for us to push the coffee table to the side and spread out on the floor with shorts of rum held delicately in our hands. Gideon fiddled with the record player and carefully set a vinyl playing. It was Sam Cooke, one he always picked whenever I entertained him here.
“I’m going to need you to fill me in,” Gideon said, his glass already half empty. “I feel like I’ve been in a cocoon. But also like I haven’t really left it. Do you know what I mean? It’s like with you guys I have a bit of breathing space. I can feel tiny little wings.” I nodded. Something had got him high. “So tell me. Tell me everything.”
Lorcan coughed. “We spent the last four weeks trying to get a hold of you and that’s basically it.”
“So did Adora,” I added.
Gideon’s smile dropped. “Fuck. Adora.”
“Is she okay?”
“I don’t think so, but she’s dealing.”
Gideon knocked his head back and finished the rest of his rum with a graceful swoop of his arm. The bottle stood on the table next to us, and he grabbed it with desperation, filling it to the top and forgetting the mixer. “How’s Heather?”
“You should ring her.”
He shook his head and placed his glass down. “I don’t want to talk about Adora. Have you got any food?”
We watched him stand and make his way over to the kitchen. I expected Kingsley to go with him – he must have been hungry by now – but the three of us watched him kick in to overdrive and begin raiding my cupboards like a starving orphan. I had to look away and take a large sip of my drink, revelling in the warmth that it spread all the way down my throat and realising that I was dangerously dehydrated. “I’m going to make a cup of tea. Do you want one?”
Kingsley’s hand shot up. “Me, me! Wait!” He crawled over to where his backpack was still sitting on my sofa and rummaged around in the front back. He pulled out a bag of dope and handed it to me. Great.
Gideon was eating cereal against the counter. I didn’t even know I had cereal. “Want some tea?” He shook his head, so I filled a pan with water with my hands shaking and let it start simmering on the stove, thinking about how I was going to tell him about his father.
“We should invite the girls. Heather and Moira. Adora.”
I sighed. “We shouldn’t.” Kingsley had given me way too much dope, but I started crushing it together with the last remnants of butter I’d scraped out of the bottom of a tub. This was supposed to be saved for chocolate cupcakes I promised my mother I’d bring home over Christmas. I smiled at my insolence. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

How I Learnt to Love my Shoulders

I was always afraid of bones. I knew what skeletons looked like and I knew where bones were meant to be, I just didn’t quite realise that I had any. The only time I’d seen the shape of a skeleton was when I glimpsed it at the back of a biology classroom, standing partially hunched forwards, its jaw hanging and its teeth naked in an uneasy smile. It wasn’t difficult to look at, that way. They weren’t real bones. It was an ornament to move and measure and observe. Its plastic existence was far away from my own.

When I first saw the bones that belonged to me I was scared. First my knee caps, that had always been somewhat visible and rounded, had become sharpened into squares that jarred into the strip beneath my skin whenever I tried to climb the stairs. Then it was the bloated column of my backbone that people could feel when they wrapped their arms around me. Every time, I would recoil like their touch had intruded on a part of my interior assembly that was never supposed to be visible. I took off my clothes and looked in a mirror, blinking at my body which was only a skeletal statue, not wanting to believe something like this moved inside me. Hip bones reached out like two white palms. My jaw was so angled I felt like I could detach it from my head and there would be no flesh to tear. Every part of me was chiselled away, filled with hollow concaves that hurt to press.

Another face lay beneath my own. I wondered who it was. Why it had decided to come and say hello.
This morning, it is two years later. I took a shower, and slid my hands over my shoulders. It was the same action I had done twice before, running my hands across my shoulders towards my forearm and back again, feeling the smooth, unstoppable slope of flesh underneath the water.

It had been my shoulders I had missed the most when I became a skeleton, oddly. I’d never looked at my shoulders before. They were just things I had, things I slipped t-shirts over, things I scratched, rubbed, pinched. I didn’t realise I could lose them until I rubbed my hand across them one day and felt none of the cushiony skin that I was certain had always been there. Instead there was only bone, protruding proudly from its nook of non-existence. I fingered the crook where the end of my clavicle had forced its way out. My shoulder had eroded from a neat slope to a cliff drop, and it was taking every other part of me down with it. For so long this bone had been invisible, now there it was. It was so ugly to touch that I almost vomited. I grabbed a cardigan and wrapped it tightly around my arms, wondering if I would ever keep them or if they were destined to be chipped away too.

This morning I remembered the first time I was brave enough to touch them again.  I remember feeling its curve, smooth like the stroke of a paintbrush. My hand went all the way down my arm and I clutched onto my own fingers, squeezed them. I couldn’t stop feeling my own skin, the fullness of it, the softness of it. The flesh that for so long had dropped from my body every time I took a step was coming back. I was returning.

Today, I try to understand my relationship with bones. I stand in the mirror and wonder where they have disappeared to, perhaps somewhere underneath the soft cushioning that now knocks into tables and squashes against chairs. At times, I wonder maybe if by discovering myself I am destroying someone else I could’ve been. I will never know.

The only thing I know is that I have fallen in love with my shoulders. My shoulders that ache from tension as I hunch over computer screens, that slave over tote bags full of paperbacks, that I now let get kissed by the sun in clothes I’m not scared to wear. They hurt me, but the tremble that crept its way down my body when they came back was nothing I will feel from someone else ever again. No-one will ever know why their outline is so important to me. No-one’s touch will ever compare. I can never have a lover so full of joy for my being as much as I was able to fall in love with this little part of myself.

I try and recreate this passion but it never works. I try to extend it to other things, but it is a sensation I cannot replicate. All I know is that I want everybody to feel like this. Even for a day. Even for an hour. About one tiny part of themselves. I want love like this to be everywhere because too many people don’t know it exists. Too many people think they need to rise from ashes, bloom like a flower, strip themselves from their old skin until they have achieved a mythic-like metamorphosis. But you can achieve love how you are and as you are. I wish I could know this myself.

It’s okay to love the touch of your skin, watch it brighten in the sunlight.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Small Thoughts on The Catcher in the Rye

Recently I read J.D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye for the ninth time, and even though I believe it to be the book I understand most in the world, there's still one overwhelming question I want an answer to. Why does Holden want to protect innocence? What was the overwhelming cause for the obsession with saving children from the dangers of adulthood?

Though my life I've done a lot of research on Salinger as a man and I like to think that I've got a good idea as to why he wrote the things he wrote, and how his real life experiences translate into his fiction. But first, I wanted to find out what other people thought about this question. Maybe I was missing something and there were other Catcher experts out there who would be able to enlighten me on the reason Holden acts why he does.

I found the series of videos that author John Green had created on Catcher that you can watch here. In the comments, someone suggested that Holden was "sexually abused as a child ... why don't people ever catch on to this!?" Whilst I disagree with the frankness of their claim, I do agree on a second look at the evidence. When Holden wakes to find Mr Antolini patting his head as he sleeps, he claims "that kind of stuff's happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid". There's certainly a reading here that suggests Holden has experienced some kind of sexual abuse from an adult in the past, but one also has to take in to account that Holden is extremely unreliable. What exactly does he mean by "stuff"? It is a very slippery sentence, and the fact that Holden is prone to over-exaggeration makes me in two minds about any kind of sexual abuse. Yet of course, there's still definitely the possibility that this could be the case.

But one further comment I really disagreed with was the claim that "Salinger puts aspects of himself into the characters he creates so this probably happened to him as a kind ... writing this book was his way of self-therapy/cry for help in saying things he just couldn't bring himself to say in real life".

WHOA. HOLD ON. Big claim there. As far as I know there is zero evidence that Salinger was ever abused as a child (though I'm not denying it could've easily been covered up), and just because Holden might have been abused does not automatically mean that the writer themselves has gone through the same thing. Though I definitely think Salinger translates his own experiences into his work, and especially with Catcher, I think without any further evidence the claim that Salinger was abused just because Holden alludes to it is far to much of a stretch.

My own view on this matter comes down to something very different: the war. Salinger fought in the Second World War and many critics and personal friends of his have concluded that he suffered from shell-shock as a result of it. On my ninth read, I picked up more references to the war than before. There is a small section where Holden talks about how he used to refuse to give Allie his BB gun to play with. The gun is a symbol of corruption, trauma and loss for Salinger, and by refusing to give it to Allie shows how Holden tries to protect him from the horrors of adulthood that Salinger experience through combat. Adulthood for Holden comes through experience, and for Salinger this experience was damaging because of the war, and not sexual abuse.

Though sex definitely plays a part inside the novel, I would say that it is more relevant as a signifier of adulthood than as a direct cause of why Holden is protecting others from experience. I will be doing another post soon on the role of sex and sexuality in the novel, and why I think Holden is asexual. For now, though, my reasoning for Holden's personality lies on the speculation of war. Of course, without having a conversation with Salinger nobody will ever know, but I think discussion is as close as we will come to finding out.

Monday, 20 March 2017

A Rant about the 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' Film

When I first read Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, I was completely blown away. I hadn't felt that in love with a book for a long, long time. It had both mystery and action, the magic helped to fuel the fantasy whilst the photographs added to it's wider narrative as a historical puzzle. It is a world in which the matriarchy is celebrated through the ymbrynes. They are mothers in their role as guardians for the children, keeping them in the womb-like spaces of the time loops. Yet they express a degree of agency over their spaces, and the women are both the protectors and the hunters; leading as well as nurturing.

So when I finally decided to watch Tim Burton's 2016 film adaptation of the book, I was genuinely disgusted to find that what I was watching was a rewrite of the original story that strips most of the female characters of their power and strength, and puts men in the role of protector and savior. Because apparently that's what we need more of. Throw some casual racism in there too and what you're left with is an enormously problematic film which reflects the complete state of the mainstream film industry in all it's horrendous elitism. I did a video reaction to the trailer once it was released which you can watch here, but the following is my full diagnosis after watching the movie in it's entirety.

One major difference from Riggs's novel is the decision to swap the powers of Emma and Olive. In the books Emma is able to radiate heat from her hands, whilst Olive (who is considerably younger) is lighter than air, and needs to be weighted by lead shoes at all times lest she float like a balloon into the sky. What Emma's peculiarity gave her was the ability to be both feminized through her relationship with Jake, but also masculine in her combat abilities in the use of her body parts as deadly weapons. Emma here does not compromise on either but the two exist in harmony. She is able to exist as a powerful and dangerous women capable of romantic expression at the same time. The dynamics of her romance with Jake aren't based on him "saving" her, but rather on the two fighting side-by-side on equal terms. In the film, Emma is now the one who floats meaning that Jake quite literally pulls her along on a string whilst she is helpless to follow. Their relationship is further thrown off balance through Jake's new reliance on weaponry to kill the hollows rather than knowing Emma is powerful enough to kill them on her own, forcing him to constantly have to "save" her through points in the film because her new power is quite honestly bloody useless.

To expand on this, her peculiarity doesn't even quite make sense to me in this adaptation. Olive's original peculiarity was simply that she floated like a balloon, however at one point in the film Emma claims that her peculiarity is to "control air". I don't know if this was a decision made by the filmmakers to try and make Emma more 'exciting', but if she could control air then why does she float rather than fly? Doesn't really make sense, does it? Because then she wouldn't need to wear those huge steel shoes that keep her on the ground. Instead, the points in the film where she really 'controls' air occur when she is either trying to save both Jake and herself, or when she's involved in a romantic scene with Jake. It figures, doesn't it?

I'd like to draw your attention to the image above in which Jake pulls his new girlfriend along on a rope and point out that she is in fact wearing a dress. This begs me to ask that if you're aware at any point you were liable to begin floating into the sky, why would you wear a dress? Whilst I am aware of a woman's freedom to wear a dress whenever she chooses, the issue here is of practicality. The answer for why is simple - the filmmakers must exaggerate Emma's femininity in order for it to be seized and consumed by the men that surround her (because that's totally the reason all us girls wear dresses). Not only is she romantically involved with Jake, but also with his grandfather, and with Enoch. It seems that every girl over a certain age needs to be paired off with a male in order for them to have a happy ending, and apparently Emma needs three!

Enoch (spoilers) ends up with Olive at the end of the film whose age has been raised specifically for the purpose of their romantic involvement. Whilst I liked some of what they did with Enoch's character, I really disliked the awkwardness of the romance between he, Emma and Olive. Firstly, Enoch in the books was very anti-social and very morbid, and this was the defining feature of his character. The film version upped his age which I didn't really mind, because it gave him the kind of moody teenager edge which I think suited his personality and peculiarity. But the film centered his 'moodiness' on the fact that Emma preferred Jake over him, setting him up as a semi-villain to Jake because they are both in competition for the same girl. And nowhere does Emma seem to have a say on the matter, by the way, just kind of doesn't even notice that there are two guys attempting to emasculate each other to they can win her affections. Of course, one assumes that Emma would be happy which ever guy came out on top, because god forbid she voice her opinion on whether she even wants to date in the first place.

Enoch only ceases to be bitter once he realises that all along he didn't actually love Emma, but he loved Olive who had silently followed him around for the entire film without once standing up to him or having the power to match him emotionally. The film can't end on a happy note until the guy is tamed by the innocent, over-feminized character that has been overlooked for the entire story, and decides to pick her as his second best seems he can't have Emma anymore. And Olive is just completely fine with that, doesn't say a word against it. She is so painfully passive through the entirety of the film that I couldn't even start to convince myself it was for a good reason.

You might be thinking that at least Olive has some redeeming qualities in the fact that she now has some super cool heat hands which she can blast fire balls from, right? Wrong! The one time that Olive gets to use her power to harm someone, I kid you not, she walks up behind them and says "sorry to interrupt" before placing her hand gently on them and proceeding to burn them. Apparently, women in this universe aren't allowed to do anything against a male without first apologising for their actions, even though the male has literally killed and eaten thousands of children. Olive then subsequently becomes symbolically dominated by the wight as her heat cannot penetrate their ice-cold aura. So in her end, her peculiarity has been completely useless against them all along, so what was literally the point of even giving her one in the first place. When she lies almost frozen to death, the thing that wakes her is Enoch's small kiss on her cheek, because apparently the heat from her blush is enough to melt the ice but the red hot flame coming from her hands isn't.

I also need to take a paragraph to address the racism in this film, which Burton has been called out upon before and who has openly admitted that he doesn't like having black characters in his films, because they don't 'fit'. If that doesn't make you ill already, then you'll love to hear that the only black character in the film is the villain who is, in the end, killed by his own kind. There's always that argument that people have that because it's set in the 1940s there "logically wouldn't have been any black people around in that time period". No, shut up. Stop erasing people of colour from history. The remaining characters are all so overwhelmingly white through the use of pale cinematography that I wondered if they were ill.

There were a few redeeming qualities. I loved the casting of Fiona and Hugh, and Fiona at one point genuinely strangled a grown male just using plants which was the highlight of the film, to be honest. The first half an hour was also good, which is the part of the plot where the mystery of the photographs and the missing children is set into place. Although this was done better in the novel, the film made some attempt at preserving this sense of mystery and it gave me a small feeling of nostalgia for the book.

I'd say that if you loved this novel, you might have similar problems with the film that I had. Then again, everybody seems to love this book for different reasons and so the film might be your cup of tea. I'd go into it with an open mind though, and encourage you to problematise the gender and racial dynamics present through-out the film. It's not okay to let this kind of stuff slide for the purposes of entertainment, and the more we call it out the closer we get to the reputation that people of colour and females deserve in the film industry.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Some Thoughts on Trainspotting

On Friday 27th January I went to see T2 Trainspotting - the long awaited sequel to Danny Boyle's acclaimed Trainspotting which has achieved cult status across multiple generations. This was the first day it was out in cinemas, and I went to see it so early because I have a special kind of love for this film that I really can't describe. There's so much to say, so much to consider. And of course, I was incredibly fearful that the sequel was going to change my opinions on the original film and I wouldn't be able to watch it in the same way again. But that's not what happened.

I can't remember the first time I actually watched Trainspotting, but I know I stayed up late. My eyes were heavy and blurring from tiredness but I was so enchanted by what I was watching that I refused to go to sleep. The film centers around a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland, all trying to get themselves clean so they can get their lives together. The famous "choose life" line from the film is a parody of the 80s slogan that hovered it's way through the decade. Yet it's not as simple as it might seem. If we "choose life", we choose conformity, we choose getting a nine-to-five job, a nuclear family, a mortgage, a gym membership. Trainspotting, among other things, seeks to problematise what it means to choose life, whilst also exposing the devastating reality of drug-addiction caused by the insufficiency of 80's culture.

It is honestly a wonderful film, and has come to define a complete generation. As reader of cult novels I was desperate to get my hands on the book, and devoured it as quickly as I could. Many people find it impenetrable as a result of the language; it is written in a number of regional dialects, mostly Scottish, meaning that if you aren't accustomed to the accent it might be difficult to read. It took the same kind of work that reading A Clockwork Orange took, and I know that writer Irvine Welsh was significantly influenced by Burgess's novel when writing Trainspotting. It takes getting used to, but once you begin understanding the language you can really begin to appreciate the text.

When I heard there was going to be a sequel to the original film, I was understanding concerned. There always seems to be a need to make a sequel to things - to 'one up' the original. I already knew that nothing could beat the original film, but knowing that both Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor were heavily involved in the production kind of lifted my hopes a bit. As the release date got closer, Welsh began engaging with it on his Twitter more often, tweeting photos of the cast and movie poster. Then the trailer dropped, and it was wonderful.

When I finally saw the film, I can't tell you how proud I felt of Danny Boyle. Somehow, he'd made a sequel without trying to be better, and instead T2 paid homage to the original movie. Film shots were echoed, such as the one where all four friends are stood on the train platform with the mountain in the foreground. The film closed with a shot of Renton (McGregor's character) starting to fall backwards akin to the way he does in the original as he succumbs to the euphoria of the drugs, but in the sequel he catches himself before he falls and starts to dance. He dances to a remastered version of Iggy Pop's 'Lust for Life', making sure we know that this is a distinctly modern film. It stands apart on its own, and it's relevant to a completely different era of consumers.

What I loved the most were the motifs that ran through T2. Trainspotting opens with the main characters running for their lives away from a police officer who is chasing them. In the sequel, Renton takes up running as a way to keep fit. He runs because he wants to, he chooses life that way. When he is hit by a car once again in a remake of the way it is done in the first film, he smiles and laughs at it, because not only are we reliving it as an audience, but he as a character, and as an actor, is reliving it too.

All in all, this film was about nostalgia. It was about looking back at the film from 20 years ago, and making a film with the exact same cast in real time, and paying homage to the fact that time has passed. Danny Boyle said himself that this film wouldn't have worked if any less than 20 years had passed, and I agree completely. I came out of the cinema so pleased with how the film had ended up, and it reignited my love in Welsh's fiction. I think one reason is the fact that this was explicitly a sequel, and not a remake of the original. Perhaps this helped them to stay away from the mindset that they had to make it an exact copy of the first one. I've recently bought the novel that T2 was based on, Porno, and plan to read it very soon.

If you haven't checked out Welsh's novels, I really advise you to do so. I've just finished rereading American Psycho for university, and I'm also part way through IT by Stephen King. This weekend I'm heading home and so will be taking Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy home with me for the weekend. I recently watched both adaptions of that film, and think the differences between both were very interesting. I love Hardy and feel like I don't read him enough. If you decide to read Trainspotting then let me know on your thoughts - I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

I've Known Trenches

When I think back to my first experience of World War One poetry, I think about my time as a drama student at the age of fourteen. I used to attend a weekly drama class in which we'd put on shows, perfect monologues, create sketches and perform songs. One evening, we were tasked to make a short scene based on the action of a poem. The poem was called 'Dulce et Decorum Est', and it's a poem that, fittingly, has haunted me ever since I encountered it. I remember the five of us working on the scene misreading the poem at the time, and believing that somebody actual stumbled and drowned in a large body of water.

Now, writing an 8000-word dissertation on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, I only look back on this memory and smile at it. There's a kind of poetic irony at how little the poem meant to me once the class was over - I didn't give a second thought to it. Now, whenever I hear somebody begin reading the first words of that final stanza, I get this feeling inside my chest that I can't quite describe. It makes me want to act, want to move, want to write.

My experience of the First World War goes back further though. In 2010, I went on a trip to France and Belgium with my school to see the battlefields of the war. Yes, we walked through the trenches that had been trodden by actual British soldiers who had fought there. Some of the places I saw were Arras, Ypres and Thiepval (above). The graves, like Flanders Fields goes, went "row on row", and didn't seem to stop. A frightening army of white. I gawped up at the columns of names etched upon the stone walls and couldn't understand how so many people lost their lives to a cause that hardly seemed justified. I didn't know of Owen or Siegfried Sassoon at that point, and whenever I look back on the photographs I regret not cherishing the experience more than I did.

A few years later my Mom made me read Pat Barker's Regeneration. It's the story of Craiglockhart Hospital - a real place - which treated shell-shocked soldiers in the First World War. The book follows a number of patients, including war poets Owen and Sassoon, and I absolutely fell in love with the novel. I was only happy to be told that I'd study it again in A-level and have since read and reread the book multiple times, constantly underlining and adding post-it notes where I can squeeze more in.

A-level was really where I fell in love with the poetry of the First World War. I discovered Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, among others. It was also where I first heard about the Surrealist movement which is currently a huge interest of mine. The day we got to study 'Dulce', our teacher asked if any of us had read it before. I remembered it from that day in drama class, and thought myself a kind of expert. But I think the only way you understand what Owen is really trying to say is if you take out a microscope and really dissect what he's trying to do, especially in the context of a modern war. It is something I'm only just beginning to understand inside my dissertation, and something that has taken me this long to grab hold of.

The best moment was then actually meeting Pat Barker, the author of the book that started my obsession with the war poets. It's funny to see me coming so far - from that girl who didn't have a clue what she was doing as she wondered among mazes of white graves with a camera, to the person now who went all the way to Scarborough to find the plaque dedicated to him on the hotel wall where he wrote 'Disabled'. I like to think that what I didn't find in France, I found back here on my home soil in finding that.

Presently, among spending a year studying the literature, I've experienced and learnt so much about the culture of the First World War. I went to a Dadaist recreation of the Somme on it's anniversary, and saw some of Paul Nash's artwork in the York Art Gallery. Its commemoration during these four years is one that I am truly grateful to be a part of, both because it gives me a framework for my argument, but also because I reminds me what I'm writing this for, and reignites that first love I had for it.

I adore my journey of discovering Wilfred Owen, and I tell it with both a sense of nostalgia but also knowingly looking towards the future. Whilst it seems like at the moment I'm heading very quickly into the next step of my career, my past experiences with his work seem to be expanding further back in the same way. Everywhere I look, I have been bracketed my his work and his person, whether I know it or not. It reminds me of the men in 'Dulce' caught in the suspension of a gas attack - cursing forward through the sludge, but also looking back at the Five Nines that drop softly behind me.