Being Free

I watched The World’s End a little while ago, which reminded me that I had the soundtrack somewhere in the depths of my CD collection. (“Record collection” still sounds better, but I don’t have one of those any more.) Written by Edgar Wright, who also directed, and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, it’s basically a comedy science fiction movie centred around an epic pub crawl. But it isn’t, not really, and the clues to this are buried in the soundtrack.

I firmly believe that The World’s End is about freedom, individuality and non-conformity and how it’s absolutely fine not to be like everyone else. In fact, being like everyone else is pretty tedious. As one character describes the lack of character in the pubs they visit – “it’s been Starbucked”. And the clues in the soundtrack are the number of songs with the word “Free” in the title. There must be half a dozen.

It’s also about nostalgia and how the past isn’t always as fabulous as we remember it. Hindsight is frequently rose tinted at best, and when Gary, Oliver, Stephen, Andy and Peter try to relive the pub crawl they failed to finish as teenagers, it becomes clear that the only one really enjoying things is Gary; and it’s possible to argue that he’s the only one who has failed to change with the times. He may be physically older, but he still thinks and behaves like a reckless teenager, whereas the others have jobs, responsibilities and are far more adult. Yet when they return to Newton Haven to pick up the pub crawl, it’s clear that something else has changed in town as well…

I’m not going to give the plot away. It’s a hoot and is well worth watching, if only to sing along to some cracking old tunes. I do think it reinforces the idea that homogeneity isn’t necessarily healthy, and a little eccentricity never hurt anyone. Just remember that you can’t do what you did when you were seventeen when you’re now forty nine.


Leave A Good Book Alone!

I picked up a book in the library recently that looked quite interesting. However, once I’d read the blurb on the back, I realised that it was a sequel by a different author to a book that I’d read some years before. I have no idea whether it was authorised or not – I can only assume that it was – but the short passage that I browsed before replacing the book on the shelf certainly wasn’t as good as I remember the original to be.

There seems to be something of a vogue for writing sequels, prequels or “further adventures” of classic novels; there are even “new” novels featuring classic characters, most recently Hercule Poirot, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. I read recently that the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, has written a prequel to the great novel – presumably to go with his less than successful sequel, which I have also read. So of the two books Dacre Stoker has written, both relate to a classic novel (and especial favourite of mine) which he has not written and which is considerably better than his efforts.

Can you see my point?

It’s not just Dracula that’s suffering. I’ve found “sequels” to everything from Gone With the Wind to War of the Worlds, Rebecca to Frankenstein. Some of them are officially authorised by the original author’s estate, and that’s fine – but a few are not and with a couple of exceptions, none of them are a patch on the originals. I don’t want to suggest that the authors are incapable of original stories – “Mrs De Winter” was written by the same person as “The Woman in Black” – but I don’t understand the impetus. Why do it when there are so many other stories to tell?

That said, I do wish someone would hurry up and finish Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, mainly because I think I’ve worked out the plot but I want to find out if I was right. I think completing an unfinished novel is slightly different to producing a sequel/prequel/using the same characters, because the majority of the time the original author has left notes and plans and whoever takes over the authorship uses them to finish the story (usually), so the sense of the original author is always there. For someone to take (say) the character of John Jasper and tell a story of him twenty years later would be a bit much and I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.

So please, authors everywhere, if asked – leave a good book alone and write those stories you wanted to read instead. They’re much more fun than rehashing the same old thing.

Godzilla Revamped

There is a new Godzilla movie in the works, I believe – a sequel/prequel/set in the same universe as Kong: Skull Island. But this post isn’t really about Godzilla, although there are similarities. I’ve just sat through Pacific Rim. Now I like Guillermo del Toro; he’s made some of my favourite films, he’s a really wonderful guy and he seems to think in a similar way to me. I just didn’t think this film showed him at his best, although the cast were great, the special effects were better and now I understand why one of my co-workers is potty about Charlie Hunnam (can’t see it myself, but there we are).

Pacific Rim is a good old fashioned monster movie, where the monsters (kaiju) live in an interdimensional breach in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and attack nearby coastal cities – hence the title. Humanity is forced to rely on large humanoid robots which reminded me of the exoskeleton in Aliens crossed with a Transformer, for defence. These robots are called Jaegers and are controlled by two pilots who are connected by a neural link. This means that their moves are synchronised, their thoughts are united and the mental load of controlling the Jaeger is shared. The plot is a fairly standard invasion/defence story, but set some time after the initial invasion, so there is quite a considerable backstory for the characters which fleshes everything out nicely.

It just feels so horribly derivative, though. As I said, the Jaegers remind me of a film I loved (Aliens) and a film I loathed (Transformers); the kaiju resemble anything from a kraken to a dinosaur, and any combination in between; and the plot is basic. So why is it so damned enjoyable? Well, the cast are fantastic and the script makes the most of the fact that this kind of alien invasion is going to be traumatic for people, so both the main characters are affected in different ways, making them feel much more rounded than perhaps the human characters of Skull Island. Ron Perlman has a minor arc in the film and isn’t really in it very much (sadly) but he owns every scene he’s in, as does Idris Elba, who has a major part and is in the film rather a lot.

Given how the film ended, I’m not sure how they’ve managed to engineer a sequel – apparently with a different cast, as John Boyega now stars – so I’d be quite interested to see how that’s worked out. At least I won’t have too long to wait to find out.

The Art of Murder

One of the recurring motifs in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is Thomas De Quincey’s famous essay “On Murder as One of the Fine Arts”. Even today this remains a controversial statement, but Ackroyd uses it skilfully to illustrate how the killer seeks public appreciation for what he does – the quest for an audience, the need for acclaim and so on. De Quincey would, I think, have appreciated the sentiment.

In his essay, De Quincey explores a mass killing which caused a sensation at the time, and has become known as the Ratcliff Highway Murders. It deals with the murder of the Marr family in December 1811 at a linen draper’s shop in Ratcliff Highway and, in particular, with the funeral procession of the man convicted of their murder, John Williams, who had committed suicide (and thereby forfeited burial in consecrated ground). Ackroyd bases the Limehouse Golem’s final murder on the Ratcliff Murders in such a way that it is presented as a copycat killing, or in the Golem’s mind, an homage to an artistic masterpiece. Many of the characters either read or are familiar with De Quincey’s essay which provides one of many links between the characters.

One of the things that I found interesting was how the body of the suicide was treated prior to its burial. It was traditional for many years to bury a suicide at a crossroads; and Williams certainly was. However, his corpse was paraded through the streets – pausing for fifteen minutes outside the draper’s shop in the Highway while a stake was hammered through his heart – to prove to the public that he was genuinely dead. This was something that I had only previously come across in vampire stories! I wonder if this was done because reports of the murder – in considerable detail – had spread widely and rapidly through the penny press, making it one of the first “sensational murders” to sell newspapers. It gripped the nation and remained a prominent story until Williams was buried.

By the 1880s, when Ackroyd’s novel is set, the popular press was a little more expensive but no less sensational; in fact, the Illustrated Police News quickly garnered a reputation as the most graphic and gruesome publication available. It was also one of the most popular, so it’s quite apparent where the public’s tastes lay. It came into its own during the Ripper murders, and virtually any book about Jack the Ripper that is available today will include illustrations taken from the pages of the Illustrated Police News. It was how the locals of Whitechapel found out what was going on in their midst.

I am old enough to remember the press furore during the late 1970s/early 1980s when West Yorkshire Police were hunting for a serial killer, nicknamed “The Yorkshire Ripper” by the tabloids. There was enough press coverage that I was able to compile a scrapbook showing how the investigation progressed – although I suspect it was more of an investigation by the media that I was illustrating. No idea what happened to it – it probably ended up in a bin somewhere, as it is a strange thing for a child to keep a scrapbook on, but I was never one for fairies or flower pressing. In later years, the press meted similar treatment to Fred and Rose West, Denis Nilsen and Beverley Allitt, although I’ve noticed it much less recently; perhaps we don’t have the same quality of serial killer any more – which brings us back to Thomas De Quincey’s original statement.

I am very reluctant to view murder as an art form. This is something that can only really be proposed by the killer themselves, and no matter how homicidal I may feel some days, a killer I am not. That said, I can see some of the logic behind it; the general public clearly like a good murder, as any crime novelist will attest. Maybe there is something in it after all?

The Limehouse Golem and the Role of Performance

I did catch a review of the film where the critic was of the opinion that “it was all about performance”. It wasn’t something I’d thought about on previous readings of the book, so I read it again and realised that, in fact, he had a very good point. Elizabeth Cree, in particular, is constantly performing.

Initially, Elizabeth’s life is a harsh one as a sailmaker before the death of her mother allows her to follow her dreams and head to the music hall, where she quickly becomes a very popular attraction. It’s clear even at this early stage that she can be economical with the truth if it suits her, embellishing her past to make it fit the role that she wishes to play. In time, these roles dictate her acts until she gets married, and her new role becomes that of wife to respectable gentleman. No more acting for her – unless it’s embellishing her past again to gloss over the slightly disreputable reputation actresses always had.

Then again, we come to the killer, the Limehouse Golem. Naturally, whoever that is (and I will not give it away, so if you want to find out, either read the book or watch the movie) needs to play a part in order to hide in plain sight. The question then becomes which one is the real person – the person who kills or the person who mingles with everyone else?

It wouldn’t be a discussion of performance without discussing the music hall, especially since this plays such a crucial part of the story. Dan Leno was an extremely popular music hall comedian, sadly now all but forgotten, but in his day he could command fortunes to appear and was almost always top of the bill. One of the subplots of the book details Leno’s fascination with the great clown Grimaldi and how he saw parallels between their lives; again, the idea of masks, performance and not being who they say they are is apparent, but it’s much vaguer here. I suppose that in a sense we expect it of Dan Leno, because he is a comic actor by trade. It would be more shocking if, say, it were Karl Marx who was doing the performing!

In fact, Marx is the only character who does not seem to inhabit a role. Another suspect for the murders is the novelist George Gissing, who tries to appear respectable, but lives in a hovel in Limehouse with his gin-soaked, prostitute wife – not quite the spouse a respectable man ought to have, but he was in love and that was that.

Perhaps the film critic was right – it is all about performance after all.

Just How Gothic is a Golem from Limehouse?

Before I get too engrossed in this, I will need to admit that at the time of writing this post I haven’t yet seen the film – only the trailer, which looks AMAZING. So everything I say is based on the book, which I have read a few times now, and benefitted greatly from a re-read only last week. It’s nice following the clues again and realising how much I keep missing!

Peter Ackroyd’s novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, isn’t really Gothic at all; it has none of the usual tropes that one would expect from a novel of that genre. There are no supernatural elements (despite the title), no damsels in distress and certainly no dashing heroes to save the day at the last minute. That said, there is something distinctly otherworldly about the whole thing. It might just be the fog-bound streets of London or the gaslit Victorian music halls, but I’m certainly very happy to list it as a favourite Gothic in my collection. It is, to all intents and purposes, a historical murder mystery, and a cracking good one at that.

First off, let’s look at what a golem is (and this bit is definitely Gothic). A golem is a man of clay animated by the word of the rabbi inscribed into its forehead, originally believed to have been created to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. When the golem was no longer needed, the rabbi rubbed out the first letter of its inscription, thereby turning it back to a mound of clay. This story was made into a silent movie by Paul Wegener in 1915 and undoubtedly influenced James Whale when he made Frankenstein in 1932, as the depiction of the Creature in the movie is fundamentally different to that in Mary Shelley’s novel. For Peter Ackroyd, the Limehouse Golem is nothing but the name given to the killer by the popular press, in much the same way as they branded “Jack the Ripper” – and many years later, the “Moors Murderers” and the “Yorkshire Ripper”.

As an area of London, Limehouse has featured in a number of pseudo-Gothic novels, most markedly in Charles Dickens’ unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood, as it is the site of the opium den at the start of the novel. It was known to be a “low” area, where crime, prostitution and gin palaces were commonplace and nobody with any self-respect would be seen dead there. Needless to say, it was very popular with those wealthier members of society who rather liked to slum it. Ackroyd has written about Limehouse before; in his previous novel Hawksmoor, a significant part of the action centres around the churches designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, one of which is St Anne’s Limehouse which plays a central role in the plot of this later book. The church is still there and well worth a visit.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I believe Gothic is a broad church, and certainly this novel doesn’t fit into the academic definition of Gothic used by English Departments around the world. That said, it feels right to me, so as far as I’m concerned, a golem from Limehouse is very Gothic indeed.

Learning How To Write

Rather on a whim, I’ve been reading a biography of Stephen King – not necessarily because I’m a huge fan of his work, but if anyone knows who to write best-selling fiction, I’d be hard pushed to beat his record. He writes readable, successful and original fiction which sells by the truckload. So if he were to offer advice (which he doesn’t, at least, not in this book) on how to achieve a similar end, well, you’d listen, wouldn’t you? As I said, the biography I’m currently demolishing doesn’t offer a “how to” guide to write like Stephen King – but it does offer some incredible insights into how he works and some of these I’ve heard before so they are clearly “old chestnuts” worth paying attention to. Here’s what I’ve found out so far:

Write What You Know. It does feel like it’s stating the perfectly obvious, but it’s absolutely true in King’s case. He knows rural Maine extremely well, having lived there all his life. He also knows what he finds scary, so it’s no effort at all to transfer that to his novels. What scares him must scare someone else, right? And if his sales figures are anything to go by, that’s not a bad formula. Although I am starting to wonder if there is anything in this world that King isn’t scared of.

Anything is Scary. A random tale of an industrial accident turns into a homicidal machine; a box containing decades old research papers also contains a demon; a cemetery dedicated to road kill found on a busy road becomes a story of a man trying to resurrect his child. Never write something off as being just too ordinary; with a little twist, it can become utterly terrifying.

Read Everything. Two things that shone through the chapters about King’s education were that he not only read constantly – many people commented that he was never seen without a book – but he believed that even trashy pulp fiction had a value, since people bought and read it. It didn’t need to be great literature – and if you want to make money (as Dan Brown and EL James will testify) great literature may be the last thing you want to write. What is much more important is a good story, and the more you read, the more you will learn about style, pacing and atmosphere.

Most importantly – Keep Going. No matter how hard it is, keep writing. Something else that many people have commented on is King’s phenomenal work rate. He wrote all the time, even when he was collecting rejection slips and couldn’t give his stories away. He simply told himself it was a matter of time. And it was.

So you see – one can learn a lot about writing from a book that isn’t about learning to write. Now that’s magical.

Skull Island – Still Radioactive After All These Years…

I’ve finally got round to watching Kong: Skull Island, only about six months after having read the book – which, to be fair, was entertainingly daft. The film was entertainingly daft although I did like the special effects. The acting was pretty shocking though – reminded me a bit of the John Lewis advert, “never knowingly undersold” becoming “never knowingly underacted”.

I was reminded of the film by a news story I read recently about the Marshall Islanders who still live near Bikini Atoll, the site of the US nuclear tests in the 1950s. Seventy years later, and despite the radiation levels, the marine life is starting to return to its previous state, which is very good news; although the radioactivity remains a disturbing thought. Islanders who eat locally caught fish are ingesting levels of radiation which lead to a vastly reduced life expectancy, and incidences of cancer and thyroid disorders are much higher than the international average.

One of the characters in Kong: Skull Island refers to the Bikini Atoll tests when he talks about nuking the island, and suggests that rather than testing new weapons, the military were actively trying to destroy something – hinting at either Kong himself or the Skullcrawler he fights at the end – although if you waited until after the credits, you would have heard Gojira himself, which according to the original Japanese movies, was definitely a product of nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Of course, exposure to atomic radiation is highly unlikely to cause creatures to grow hugely while remaining otherwise unchanged. Much more likely are mutations such as misshapen limbs, tumorous growths or perhaps even an extra head or tail. The overwhelming majority of such mutant creatures would not survive, so those that do would be rare indeed – and probably not that much of a threat which, of course, reinforces the unspoken plotline that the most dangerous things in the film are the people.

Goth – But Don’t Like Horror

Now I’ve written it, I’m not entirely sure that’s true. I do like horror, but the old fashioned, not very scary sort of horror, the type produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and Hammer in the 1960s (and anything in between). I really don’t like psychological horror, anything involving the Bible (although The Omen was quite fun) and slasher movies with special effects that look like they’ve had money spent on them – unless of course it’s patently ridiculous and couldn’t possibly be real, like Constantine, for example.

If I were to tell you that my all-time favourite horror movie was The Bride of Frankenstein, you’d get a pretty good idea of the kind of horror I’m on about. It’s not scary, although I suspect that in 1935 it was pretty freaky for some people. The 1950s remake of The Mummy was brilliant, one of the earliest occasions that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing got to work together. That’s not scary either, but again, for the time I can see why it was marketed as horror. It’s a really well made film, actually (better than the latest one at any rate).

In fact, the best horror film made recently that I’ve seen was Crimson Peak, mainly because it was a Gothic classic (and had Tom Hiddleston in the buff. Me being shallow again), but because the horror was external – it didn’t look like everyone else. This is why, for me, recent horror is so terrifying. How can I deal with it when it resembles me? That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a place in modern culture, it does and a very necessary one as well. However, I do not watch films or read books to be scared, I watch them to be entertained, and I do not find being scared very entertaining.

If I really wanted to, I could probably find horror anywhere I looked, but I’m choosing not to. Real life is hard enough without having to find monsters under every bed. So if it’s all the same to you, I’ll stick with my old monster movies and Gothic horrors until someone comes up with a better idea.

How Sustainable is Traditional Medicine?

As if I don’t have enough issues with Traditional Chinese “Herbal” Medicine… Now we have another case of the planet not being able to keep up with us demanding humans. It seems that the demand for “Himalayan Viagra” (I kid you not), a fungus grown and harvested on the heads of caterpillars found in the mountains of Nepal, is vastly outstripping supply, creating a knock on effect on the Nepalese who risk life and limb to gather it. Given that other notorious traditional Chinese remedies include rhino horn and tiger penis – both creatures being critically endangered – you can see why I wonder how sustainable this is. **

It is a wider issue, however. As the climate changes, it will affect the growing patterns of traditional European herbal remedies, such as arnica or black cohosh. And unless and until the provision of herbal remedies is based on organic permaculture principles, there is a question mark over its sustainability. I fear that it will take dedicated herbal gardeners to keep the supplies going, as there is no guarantee of a wild (and unpolluted) population of any given plant at any given time.

This, to me, demonstrates very clearly how climate change can affect every aspect of human life. It’s not just about the weather – it’s health care, migrating populations, food provision, business – it really does impact on everything. As a species, humanity really cannot afford to just pretend it isn’t happening and hope it goes away. It won’t, and unless we take active steps to do something about it now, it will only get worse. If you have an interest in herbal medicine, try growing your own remedies using organic and permaculture principles. If you sell herbal remedies, consider your suppliers and where their stock comes from, and try to encourage long-term supply.

It may just be that this is something people haven’t considered, but I really hope someone, somewhere, has and is working very hard to make sure that traditional medicine can survive for many years to come. The rate we’re going, it may soon be the only medicine that still works.

** As a disclaimer of sorts, I have found other Asian remedies such as acupuncture to be very effective – and by extension, acupressure works as well if you are not keen on needles.