An Ideal Dinner Party

Before my friends and family protest – I’m only imagining one. I don’t cook, I loathe cooking almost as much as I loathe having other people in my little sanctuary. So please view this in the spirit in which it is intended, as an entertaining thought experiment and not much more.

But – if I were to have a dinner party, who would I invite? Apparently, there are rules to these things; firstly, you must have equal numbers of men and women; secondly, all the invitees are to be fictional characters*; and thirdly, it is assumed that you’ve got an unlimited budget in terms of food, drink and catering generally. I don’t believe that a detailed menu is required, so I’m not providing one. They’ll get what they’re given and like it, as my gran used to say! So, here’s my list of dinner guests:-

1 – Miss Havisham, if she can be crowbarred away from her rotting wedding breakfast and enticed into polite company. She’s allowed to keep the wedding dress, mind.

2 – Jay Gatsby, because at least he knows how to throw a party. And besides, he’d probably know where to get some more booze if we run out.

3 – Morticia Addams, because it wouldn’t be a very good dinner party without her. She’s elegant, witty, intelligent and disarmingly funny.

4 – Gomez Addams, for the same reason I would invite his wife. Although in his case, he would probably be armed and funny.

5 – Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) because she’s a wonderful character and I think a blooming good meal with great company would do her the world of good. And she can practice her swordplay with Gomez.

6 – Wolverine, because he’d bring his own cutlery and keep things from getting too boisterous.

7 – Alice, because I want to know if her wonderland is real. And besides, someone has to pair up with Gatsby…

8 – Count Dracula, assuming he actually eats and promises to leave the guests alone. In return, I promise not to use him as a target for archery practice.

And there you have it. Mind you, ask me again tomorrow and I’ll give you a completely different list…

* An alternative version has real people who are deceased. Nobody living is ever allowed.

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Exhibit Piece

I’m not sure if any of you have heard of those weird and wonderful people who take vintage to a whole new level? I saw a TV programme about some once; two couples, one who lived in the 1930s and another in the 1950s. They had each done their houses out to reflect their styles, with authentic furnishings and vehicles and so far as possible, employment. Not surprisingly, it was this last point where things seemed to fudge a little; Mrs 1930s worked in a call centre and Mrs 1950s was a civil servant, but I suspect neither of them could afford to be the housewives they would have been expected to be in the eras of their choice.

The reason why I mention this is that this story by Philip K Dick reminded me a lot of those couples; so invested in their chosen era that they have elected to live the life so far as possible. It’s a wonderful idea, and in Dick’s hands it turns into something a bit special. We are no longer in a museum exhibit – we have genuinely gone back in time, and compared to the life that he was living before, perhaps going back isn’t much of a temptation.

Dick often wrote about memory and nostalgia, and how the past can sometimes seem a little rose-tinted compared to the reality. I think this story really brings it home. A part of me would love to have lived in the 1940s, but perhaps without rationing, the bombing and the disease… thinking about it, I’ll stick with the here and now. It’s stressful enough.

Not Quite Downton

I’ve never read anything by Kate Morton before, but the library thoughtfully allowed a copy of The House at Riverton to remain on the shelf before anyone else got there, so I borrowed it to have a read. It’s a lovely read, interesting and with characters you can really engage with, and it took me no time at all to whizz through 500 pages.

If it reminded me of anything, the book closely resembled the second season of Downton Abbey, set during the First World War. This is primarily because both are set in a large country house, with noble owners and downstairs staff, and discuss all the changes that came with the onset of war, the slaughter and in due course the armistice. Although in that regard they are telling the same story, it is markedly different in how it is handled – at no time reading Morton did I imagine Hugh Bonneville coming down the stairs at Grantham to consult Carson over the wine list.

Riverton is narrated through the eyes of one of the maids, Grace, as she recalls her past which is in the process of being turned into a costume drama. There’s a lot more to the plot than that, but I found I wasn’t really interested in any of it; I wanted to go back in time with her, back to dusting every last nook and cranny in the library because Her Ladyship was convinced that a relative died of a dust infection three hundred years previously, and where Cook’s apple tartlets were considered a cure for shellshock on the grounds that they worked for everything else.

There are births, deaths and marriages in the novel (the greatest twist is where the inheritance of the title depends entirely on the gender of an unborn child so the household has to wait for three months to find out) as there are in Downton, and it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the conspiracies, friendships and rivalries between the characters. I honestly think that if you like Downton, you will enjoy this – just don’t expect Lady Mary to turn up suddenly and have a fling with an Indian prince.

The Showman’s Art

I’ve only just realised – writing the title to this – that two of America’s greatest shock rockers have alter egos with female names; Marilyn Manson chose his by combining a glamorous celebrity with a notorious criminal whereas Alice Cooper was told a story about a New England witch of that name. Both play loud raucous rock music with controversial themes and subjects, wear outlandish outfits and lots of make up – and both put on a stunningly good live show. I’ve had the great privilege over the years to have seen both of them on stage a number of times, and I’ve never left disappointed.

And it’s interesting that both of them have been on tour to the UK in recent months, still putting on stage performances (with Manson in a wheelchair after suffering a broken leg) which are as good as any they’ve seen. You see, I believe that both understand the nature of performance; an audience go to see a show to be entertained, so give them something to watch. Whether this is Cooper’s fake guillotine or Manson on stilts, it’ll be remembered and talked about for a long time, which is the point.

Someone I know who knows these things said that many bands and musicians actually don’t make money from touring; they make it from the merchandise that is sold at the venue (provided you buy it from legitimate traders, obviously). So why do they bother? Well, it allows them to interact with their fan base but in order to attract new fans and keep the existing ones interested, you have to give them something worth seeing, and that is something that both Manson and Cooper understand inherently.

I can’t say what inspired them to do things this way, because I simply don’t know. I can say that it’s worth every penny of the tickets to go and watch, and is always highly entertaining (although if you don’t like the music, don’t bother). Perhaps a few other performers could take a leaf out of their books and entertain, rather than just show up on stage in a t shirt and jeans and warble a bit?

Goya’s Gothic Masterpiece

Goya painting titled “Time” or in Spanish Las viejas.

Deep down, I know I really shouldn’t like this painting half as much as I do. It’s really very wicked, blackly funny and very clever; it’s also slightly monstrous, which I think is why I like it. Of course, Time is nowhere near as bleak and gruesome as his famous painting of Cronos Eating his Children, but I think in its own way, it deserves to be centre stage a little more.

On the surface, Time is a portrait of a society lady who is incredibly elderly. She is accompanied by her maid, and there is a dark figure in the back, whom we will explore later. The lady is exceptionally well dressed, draped in white silks and lace and presumably her best diamonds. Behind her fan, you can tell that the maid is sniggering despite her skull like features. Yes, the lady who may once have been beautiful has decided that she will be beautiful again, by wearing finery that is outdated and probably unfashionable. The maid may have gone along with it as an opportunity to laugh at her betters – and it’s a salutary lesson for those of us who may occasionally risk harking back to our younger days and getting the punk/goth/rockabilly outfits out. What suited us when we were 17 may not necessary suit us when we’re 50.

Now, the character at the back – most art historians state that this is a personification of Time, which is very hard to disagree with (because of the title of the work) but because there is a very clear message about the effects of the passage of time. Alongside this analysis is also that this could be a personification of Death – he awaits us all and it is only the passage of time that separates us.

If your only taste of Goya has been his Black Paintings (which aren’t for everyone, even though I think they’re rather wonderful) this is a great example of his wicked sense of humour.

A Lesson in Being a Gentleman

Oh all right, I admit it. I only watched Kingsman: The Secret Service because part of it was set in Savile Row. Oh, and Mark Strong was in it, and I rather like him. Despite all the silliness, gadgetry and violence, there was some pretty good stuff in the film – especially on what it took to be a gentleman. Given that at least one of the candidates to replace Lancelot was a woman, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that these are general principles rather than specifically male ones.

I shall also try very hard not to sound too much like Colin Firth when I do this.

Firstly, a gentleman is not about birth but about breeding. This is one of the lessons that Eggsy has most trouble getting his head around, coming from a council estate and living on the dole. Being a gentleman is about being comfortable in one’s own skin, about being confident that one can adapt to and behave in any situation. As the Kingsman motto has it – manners maketh the man. It used to be clothes in my day, but to be honest, they’re just a sideshow. Good manners cost nothing but make a world of difference, and they are the mark of a gentleman – and they are something that can be learned.

Moreover, being a gentleman is about knowing when to work as a team and when to go it alone. It is about loyalty when needed and ruthlessness when required. Startlingly, it was often the female candidates who proved more adept that this than the men were, so it was no surprise when one became a Kingsman. She was brilliant, a real role model for young women.

Finally – and probably most importantly – being a gentleman is about taking responsibility for your actions. It’s about holding your hands up and admitting when you’re wrong and learning from your mistakes. Physical strength is all very well, but mental strength and tenancity are better; but all pale in comparison to integrity.

Kingsman: The Secret Service could teach everyone a great deal about being a gentleman – and hopefully young people will learn a lot from it as well. Not just how to disarm a gun wielding lunatic from a hundred paces.

Hoffman’s Sandman – Nothing Like Gaiman (despite the picture)

For reasons best known to me at the time – and which I have now completely forgotten – I picked up a collection of ETA Hoffman’s stories. Part of me considers them to be old fashioned German fairy tales, much like those of the Brothers Grimm before the Victorians decided to sanitise everything and change all the endings. As Roald Dahl proved many times, kids like a bit of nasty – but even so, I would baulk at letting a child read Hoffman’s best known story, the Sandman. It made me shudder, and I’ve read the original Grimm stories as well. I have to say very early on that if your only version of the Sandman is from Neil Gaiman’s epic graphic novel of the same name – you may be in for a bit of a shock.

The Sandman of Hoffman’s tale is a supernatural being who comes to children at night and steals their eyes. If we are still looking at Gaiman’s Sandman, I suppose the character he would remind me most of would be the Corinthian, a stunningly handsome creature as long as he kept his sunglasses on. In fact, if my memory serves correctly (and I haven’t read Gaiman’s story for a long time) the Corinthian was always considered the “stuff of nightmares” – which would bring in the sleep/dream element from the Hoffman version. In fact, apart from Gaiman’s Sandman being the keeper of dreams, there isn’t really much that links the two stories at all.

What Hoffman’s version reminds me most of is Coppelia, a ballet first performed in 1870. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Wikipedia claims it is one of the stories the ballet is based on (the other Hoffman story is The Doll, which I haven’t read yet). In turn, the reader is reminded of Pygmalion, Frankenstein and even Pinocchio – which is a creepy enough film as it stands without needing to add this into the mix. In a sense, because Swanhilda is an automaton, she is perhaps the precursor to the robot Maria in Metropolis – which itself created a whole genre of tales about artificial intelligence so lifelike it’s almost human, including Astroboy and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I wonder, actually, if Hoffman also wrote the libretto (do ballets have libretti? I hope so) to The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s world famous Christmas ballet which also features dancing dolls, amongst all the other toys. Let’s face it, from there it’s only a short leap to Chucky and an assortment of gruesome horrors. Why do the brightest things have the darkest shadows?

Anyway – if you get your hands on a copy of this, by all means read it – just don’t expect the Endless to make an appearance in the middle.

Can One Be A Vegan Goth?

Now, this is quite a question because a lot will depend (a) on what you consider a Goth to be and (b) what you consider a vegan to be. I shall give you my definitions of the two so you can follow my argument, but if your definitions are different, then chances are you will not agree with me. That’s fine – just as long as you know what hymn sheet I’m singing from.

I’ve set my definition of Goth out elsewhere, but for a brief recap, it’s someone who finds the shadow side, the dark subversive side of life preferable to the bright, plastic, surface side. It’s not all about drinking blood and eating brains – where I live, the latter appear to be in terrifyingly short supply, so it’s just as well I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. It treats death as a fact of life rather than something to be feared or demonised, and understands that people are different and that’s okay.

My definition of vegan is someone who doesn’t eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs or honey and tries, where possible, not to promote or encourage cruelty to animals. In some ways this is easier than others – I try not to wear leather, but appreciate that shoes are going to be a problem in this regard so cut myself some slack. Just because death is a fact of life does not mean that that death has to be cruel and certainly promoting cruelty to animals as any form of sport or entertainment is not something I believe is morally justifiable, no matter how one tries to spin it.

For me, the crucial thing is having the right intention but being practical about it. If I am given a choice, I choose the vegan – or at least vegetarian – option; and if I do not have the choice, I choose accordingly. Most importantly, I don’t beat myself up about it. I said in another post that silk is a good option for very hot summers – but it’s not vegan, so if you are not a vegan but have a lovely silk blouse, then by all means, wear it and enjoy it. The thing is, the two are not incompatible and I see no reason why Goths can’t be vegan if they choose to be so. The days where all vegans knitted their own mung bean sandals are, thankfully, long gone.

It’s Not What You Expect in a Murder Mystery

I’ve been swept away by Alias Grace, one of my favourite Margaret Atwood novels. It’s continuing my apparent theme of Victorian set murder mysteries, but this novel is based on true events, although the facts of what actually happened – much like Lizzie Borden’s parents – may never be known for certain. What is certain is that Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery were violently murdered in the house at which Grace Marks worked as a maid; she then fled the scene with a male servant, was tried and convicted, but the death penalty in her case was commuted because of her age – she was only sixteen at the time.

In common with most other females of her time, Grace was a skilful needlewoman; at one point she comments that she has been sewing since she was four, with the result that she has learned to do tiny stitches which those less experienced in sewing cannot do. It is also revealed that Grace is making a quilt for her employer, the wife of the prison governor and this reflects a theme which Atwood has hidden in plain sight in the novel. Each of the chapters of the book is named after a particular quilt pattern.

Women of North America (including Canada) during the 1800s did an awful lot of quilting; it was an economical way of using up fabric scraps and quilts were often made to form gifts for weddings or when family members left. As a result, the patterns came to represent memories or stories in much the same way as the language of flowers developed in Britain in the same period. It does seem to me, though, that this kind of quilt making was more popular with the pioneer women of the Americas than the stay at home women of Europe. Certainly, the advent of the sewing machine did much to revolutionise dressmaking and it may be that the skills required for hand quilting have died out.

Now I admit that I do my fair share of needlework, although it’s mostly embroidery or running repairs to whatever I happen to be wearing at the time, but it’s fair to say that I’ve only ever done quilting at school and that was a six inch square patch which was about as average as everyone else’s. It’s been fascinating to me to find out about the different quilt patch patterns and also to see how they reflect on the novel. It really wasn’t what I expected – but I’m delighted to have found it.

A One Man Comic Book Hero

I love finding out about people (and things) I’ve never previously heard of. So when someone mentioned the name Jack Parsons to me, my immediate reaction was “Who?” I’ve now done a bit of reading on the subject, and all I can say is – he was a one-man comic book hero. None of what follows is invented, but see how many comic references you can spot.

First of all, his given name wasn’t Jack; he was named after his father, Marvel Whitehead Parsons, and changed his name to something a little more user-friendly as he got older. After school, where he enjoyed maths and science, he became a rocket engineer. He was one of a group of young and enthusiastic scientists known for carrying out dangerous experiments, which quickly gained the moniker “The Suicide Squad”. He helped form the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at the University of California, which now works closely alongside NASA and some of his engineering designs formed the basis for some of the engine technology on the Space Shuttle.

Parsons died in quite mysterious circumstances. He and his second wife were about to go on holiday to Mexico when he received a consignment of explosives from a film studio for testing. While she was out shopping, Parsons took the explosives into his laboratory for examination. A large explosion caused a substantial part of Parsons’ house to collapse; he was found alive but seriously injured by rescue workers, although he died thirty seven minutes later. An official investigation found that Parsons dropped a jar containing fulminate of mercury, which was disputed by friends and work colleagues who said he was scrupulous about safety. They went on to suggest that he was assassinated; certainly his wife always maintained that he was murdered.

And just to add insult to injury – contemporary photographs show a man who looked suspiciously like Howard Stark… (Rumours of a Winter Soldier in the vicinity were sadly unsubstantiated.)

I can only wonder how many ideas he’s provided comics with over the years. He had a fascinating life (about which I’ve very much enjoyed reading) and his scientific work was genuinely pioneering for the late 1930s and early 1940s. I’m amazed that he’s only just crossed my radar.