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.

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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.

The Call of the Ocean Liner

Note – the ocean liner, not the cruise ship. I’m not interested in this overglorified ferry traipsing round the Med visiting the same dozen ports in a vague circuit while large sunburned company directors and their spouses sit on the deck slurping multi-coloured cocktails. I’m talking about the Golden Age of luxury shipping, of the Titanic and RMS Carpathia (first class rather than steerage, obviously), the White Star Line and Cunard, when it really was crystal chandeliers and dressing for dinner, and the three classes on board were rigorously segregated.

The V & A have just announced a fantastic exhibition – and are rapidly becoming one of my favourite museums these days – all about this very distinctive and glamorous era. In the years prior to international flight being the norm rather than the exception, people travelling any distance abroad had to go by boat, and because of the distances involved, conditions had to be tolerable at the very least. Given that it would take the Queen Mary a week to sail from Southampton to New York, one couldn’t expect Lord and Lady Sparklinge-Wyne to travel cattle class – so the ships were fitted out according to the status of their passengers.

The exhibition contains everything from furniture and fittings from the boats themselves, to clothes and jewellery of some of the better known (and better dressed) passengers. Items include the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s monogrammed luggage and Lady Allen’s diamond and pearl tiara (retrieved from the Lusitania after it was torpedoed). It really is seeing how the other half lived – it’s incredibly glamorous and still dazzling, even after all these years. One of my favourite parts of Titanic (yes, I have sat through that Winslet/de Caprio marathon, but only until it hit the iceberg) was seeing the first class lounges and dining areas, carefully recreated from contemporary photographs.

This exhibition is the closest that I and many other people will ever get to that kind of lifestyle. In a sense I’m glad, because it was a product of its time and these days it would too easily trip over to tackiness; but it’s a wonderful insight into a glorious, glamourous period of modern history. I can’t wait to go and see it for myself.

My Child Is Not Goth!

Believe me, I feel your pain. I really do. When I was pregnant with the Offspring, I watched Addams Family Values with my sister. At the sequence where baby Pubert transforms from an Addams to a bonny, blond-haired, rosy cheeked little thing and the family treat him as if he’s possessed, my sister turned to me and said: “Don’t know why you’re laughing, that’s the kind of thing you’d do.”

She wasn’t wrong. My child loved pink, frills, dolls and tea sets. Mind you, she also gives science kits a good workout and she reads an awful lot. I have to say, though, that one of my biggest disappointments was when she asked me for a Barbie doll for Christmas one year. My child – a Barbie doll? Outrageous! However, a sudden flashback to the same film triggered a profound sense of panic which I don’t think anyone else really appreciated. What kind of Barbie did the Offspring want? Get the wrong one and I risked turning her into a serial killer! If she asked for Ballerina Barbie and I made the mistake of getting Malibu Barbie…

Yeah, you know how the film goes. But it really did worry me for a bit. I ended up getting a Princess Barbie and a Dog Grooming Barbie (mainly because the little pooch that came with it looked like one of ours) and hoped for the best. As it transpired, she got half a dozen different Barbie dolls and was delighted with all of them.

Anyway, the point is – I know how disappointing it can be for a Goth parent when their child will insist on following the crowd. The desire to fit in is strong and perhaps we have forgotten how much it took for us to stand our ground. Perhaps one’s child wishes to rebel against the will of its parents – again, a very strong urge for the young. Or, painful as it sounds, perhaps one’s child is not Goth.

That’s fine. That’s absolutely fine. Love them anyway. Teach them tolerance, that to be different is okay and to respect people who don’t look the same as them. Teach them about different beliefs and value systems and show them the absurdity of what some of their peers take to be normal. Get them to watch the Addams Family (and watch it with them) so they can see that it’s okay to laugh at being a bit different – but then being the same as everyone else isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either.

The most important thing of all is that one’s child knows that they are loved and cared for and that they can talk to their parents about anything without fear of judgment. After all, that’s what being a good parent is all about, Goth or not.

Dissecting Conspiracy Theories

I’ve been reading about conspiracy theories lately – well, it made a change from the end of the world – and one of the books I’ve picked up does a pretty good job of dissecting most of the popular/well known/most widespread ones by resorting to Occam’s razor. If you’re not familiar with Occam’s razor – and unless you’re a philosophy student, why should you be? – this essentially boils down to “the simplest solution is almost certainly the right one”. I have to say that a lot of the time, this method is really very effective but does take a lot of the fun out of things.

To select three examples which David Aaronovitch – for it is his book I’m reading – uses, let’s use the deaths of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy and, using Stef’s Hatchet rather than Occam’s razor, let’s see where we end up.

It’s all rather prosaic, actually. Princess Diana died in an avoidable accident (somebody really should have put their foot down and said that the driver was too drunk to be behind the wheel) and Monroe was an accidental overdose given that she had taken sleeping pills for a very long time and was reportedly rather depressed when she died. JFK is the one that I had most fun with. I’m still not sure that the angles work out for a lone gunman, but I’m going to stick my neck out here and come up with a really neat solution that entertained me for all of ten minutes.

Lee Harvey Oswald had already attempted to kill a public figure in April 1963, but was unsuccessful. He had the means, motives and resources to kill Kennedy. Opportunity favoured Oswald when the route of the motorcade was changed to go past the Book Depository, where Oswald worked – so he managed to get in, secrete himself on the sixth floor and wait. However, down in the crowd, somewhere near a grassy knoll, is terminally ill Jack Ruby, who decided that he was going to go out in style and take a president with him. Three shots are fired and it’s unclear who fires the fatal shot. It’s not until Oswald is arrested that Ruby realises he may have failed; he’s the one who shot the President, not this upstart. So he goes and kills Oswald in revenge for stealing his bit of limelight.

How neat was that? It’s plausible too, if only there were evidence to support it. Oh well, never mind – lone gunman it is then.

The thing is, people create conspiracy theories for two main reasons; (1) they don’t trust what they are being told by the government or the media, and (2) they want to believe in something. Any theory, therefore, is better than no theory. I think this tells us an awful lot about the relationship between government, media and populace and I’m surprised it hasn’t been explored more.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

I’m reading a book about conspiracy theories at the moment. It’s not very entertaining (no outrageous assertions that all world leaders are Lizard People from Planet X, sadly) but it is enlightening, especially when it deals with how conspiracy theories take root and become disseminated into popular culture to a point where it becomes very troublesome to tell the fake news from the truth.

Now if that sounds a little familiar, I can only apologise – but I for one do not believe a word that comes out of the White House nor what appears in a Murdoch newspaper. The former, unfortunately, is more of a recent occurrence than the latter, but I long ago recognised that there is an agenda here which involves lying through the skin of their teeth at every available opportunity. If the facts suggest that something is black, they will maintain that it is white and that any suggestion to the contrary is “fake news”. In the case of the press, we are back to questions of journalistic ethics that I briefly looked at after watching Nightcrawler – what lengths will the media go to if they may get a story out of it?

The other side to this story, though, is what checks are there to keep the media from breaking the law – or just offending pretty much every normal person’s moral framework? The Leveson Enquiry spent months (and thousands of pounds) trying to establish a forum where the press could be regulated; but this ended up as entirely voluntary and so watered down as to be completely ineffective. Ultimately, unscrupulous media moguls can behave as they please without sanction, especially if those in power are doing exactly the same. No wonder the conspiracy theorists don’t trust anyone!

It’s incredibly depressing but what can one do? The simple answer, suggested by the book I’m reading, is this: the more variables involved in the conspiracy theory, the more likely it is to be faked. Unless, of course, the White House is involved, in which case believe nothing and trust no one.

The Rise of the Zombie Apocalypse?

I once wrote a short story about sinkholes. Admittedly, it was mainly a gripe about the number of sinkholes my car had to avoid on the journey from my house to the train station – my local council aren’t always the speediest at repairs – but I’d decided that they were the source of plague infected zombies. Seems that in Siberia, at least, I wasn’t far wrong; melting tundra ice (and the resulting sinkholes) is releasing long-dormant anthrax spores along with the buried methane – a major greenhouse gas. Diseases that many scientists had thought had died out may yet come back to haunt us. Let’s just hope the CDC still have vaccines.

It’s not easy to tell from some of the pictures just how big these sinkholes are, but they are enormous. The glaciers lock into the earth by freezing into gaps in the earth’s crust, trapping methane and other greenhouse gases in the ice – as well as spores, bacteria and goodness knows what else. Captain America, probably. So when the climate heats up, the ice melts and everything securely tucked away is returned to the Great Unknown, including diseases we no longer have – or perhaps never had – any immunity to. It’s interesting because a similar mechanism is used for the start of the Zombie Apocalypse in World War Z; a child goes swimming in a millpond in China and ends up with this nasty virus… just move everything to Siberia and you have an entire new film franchise.

Equally – and for my part, more disturbingly – the release of the methane creates a positive feedback loop, by increasing the global temperature, thereby melting more ice and causing more sinkholes… you get the picture, I’m sure. Perhaps the zombies might be the lesser of the two evils.

Burke and Hare and the Importance of the Resurrection Men

I was watching an old film over the weekend – Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Whilst mostly true, it wasn’t 100% factually accurate, but it had a great cast, a wonderful script and was a highly entertaining couple of hours. In telling the story of these two quite notorious criminals, it also explored a crucial early part of medical and surgical education.

Until the Anatomy Act 1832, medical students could only practice dissection – or observe anatomy lectures – using the corpses of convicted murderers, usually whisked straight from the gallows to the mortuary or lecture theatre. This meant that demand far exceeded supply, as lectures were often twice weekly and there was still the practice that the students needed to obtain their degrees. This led to the rise of the Resurrection Man, who would often hover around graveyards and dig up freshly buried corpses to provide to medical schools that didn’t ask too many questions – and a startling number didn’t.

Burke and Hare were quite successful in the resurrectionist business, and had a decent line in providing Sir Robert Knox with bodies for dissection before his students. However, after nearly getting caught by the Edinburgh Militia, they decided that a safer way was to actually murder some of the derelicts and drunks they found wandering the back alleys of the city, on the grounds that they were unlikely to be missed, and hand these bodies over instead. Unfortunately for the pair, someone was missed and they were arrested and tried.

The Resurrection Men were put out of business by the Anatomy Act 1832, which allowed any unclaimed body to be taken for dissection – this included any hanged criminal, occupants of workhouses and basically any corpse left in the street. The medical schools were all licensed and there was no need to rely on murky dealings at the back door.

The 1832 Act has subsequently been repealed and replaced with the Human Tissues Act 2012, which now sets out the full procedures for any kind of post-mortem medical dissection. That said, the twilight world of the resurrection men will remain one of the more interesting aspects of medical history for many years to come.

When Technology Makes Me Redundant

There’s a scene in the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie where Mr Bucket (Charlie’s dad) is made redundant from his job at the toothpaste factory because the position has been taken over by a robot. I’m fairly sure that a number of car manufacturers underwent a similar process when they mechanised aspects of vehicle production. And it’s almost certain that the number of secretaries will decrease as people become increasingly techno-savvy and start producing their own letters and documents. I expect that by the time technology gets rid of my job, I’ll be ready to retire anyway.

I know I’m something of a Luddite sometimes, but I’m not against technology as a rule. Technology has given us agriculture, food, clothing, books, housing and public health. Some technology is beneficial – BUT not all of it is and sometimes the after-effects of a technological innovation may not be immediately apparent or simply not something previously considered. The example that is usually given is Airbnb; seen as a way of helping people pay their mortgages by renting out rooms on a night-by-night basis, it has pushed up housing costs in some cities reliant on tourist income. Uber has had a devastating impact on the incomes of licensed taxi drivers, many of whom undergo rigorous testing to start their income. Amazon may be wonderfully convenient, but some of their working practices leave a lot to be desired and the “high street” has felt its impact considerably. Progress doesn’t always lead to utopia, despite what the CEOs tell us.

Perhaps we need to start seeing past the brands and look at what the companies actually do. There is still a lot of discontent about the number of major global companies who – quite legally – avoid paying corporation tax, even though they make billions of dollars in profit every year; and some of these are “hip young start-ups” like Uber and Airbnb. What impacts will their technologies have on people who don’t necessarily use them – and is that impact necessarily a good thing? The last thing I want is to end up in a mud hut sending smoke signals, but I do think we ought to question the brands a little more – and if we don’t agree with what they do, we need to go somewhere else, preferably before they put us all out of a job.

Ruined by Religion

On a bit of a whim, I watched I, Frankenstein last night. I think I’d been putting it off because of a memory of distinctly mixed reviews, but overall it wasn’t too bad. The special effects had clearly had some money spent on them, which in this kind of film is a definite advantage. However, the film was ruined by the religious elements, which was essentially the entire premise.

My recollection of Mary Shelley’s novel – which is a bit hazy, I haven’t read it for a couple of months – was that it was based on the triumph of scientific reason over religious superstition. Frankenstein wishes to usurp God by creating life. There are, obviously, feminist subtexts here, but essentially this is the motivation for the creation of The Creature. So by putting a religious spin on the film by having The Creature (here called “Adam”) caught in the middle of an eternal battle between demons and angels (here called “gargoyles”) just flies in the face of Shelley’s work. There is no place for religion in a Frankenstein story unless it is being dispensed with.

That said, there are parts of the story which are quite good. The attempt to recreate Frankenstein’s experiment on a mouse and the reduction of Frankenstein to a “bedtime story” was well done. Bill Nighy commandeers every scene he’s in with no effort whatsoever – it’s the laconic delivery that does it – as he did in Underworld, another film which told a supernatural story without having to resort to Christian symbolism. He must also love spending time in make up as his final appearance was full of prosthetics! Aaron Eckhart wasn’t bad as The Creature either; suitably grimy and scarred, but world weary with it. He looked tired and I suppose after two hundred years, The Creature would be pretty fed up of his existence, unless he’d found a way to die. And it’s never explained how he develops the soul that saves him in the end. If he didn’t have one for two hundred years, exactly how did he get one in the space of a few days?

I think the thing that irritated me was The Order of Gargoyles. Now I like gargoyles – and grotesques, which is what the Order, strictly speaking, were as I didn’t see any of them spouting water, just a lot of hot air – but to suggest that they were created by the Archangel Michael to protect humanity from demons is just silly. They are, to all intents and purposes, angels – they look like them, they behave like them and annoy the pants off me in similar fashion. It doesn’t fit with the scientific aspects of either the original story or the remainder of the film. The idea that reanimated corpses could house resurrected demons summoned from Hell unless the angels can pull the plugs out is taking too many myths and ruining the legend.

All in all, despite it being good in parts, I was really disappointed with the film. Perhaps I was expecting too much – previous attempts to film the Frankenstein story after James Whale’s masterpiece in the early 1930s have been unsuccessful so I suspect the studios thought that adding a different subtext might improve their fortunes. And maybe it did; but it totally ruined the story. They may have had more luck combining it with Lovecraft’s Reanimator story – at least it would have kept the religious bits where they belonged.