Sunday, 21 October 2012

Eating the TV- don't try this at home.

It's that time of year when the letters n,i,g,e & l. take over our screens. I am referring, of course, to Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater.  Both TV cooks, both with their shows oozing temptingly all over our screens. Both cosily entrapping us, Monday and Friday respectively, within a world of aspirational culinary delights, tasteful kilner jars and bursting larders ( or lar-di-da-ers, perhaps? Wait, I take that back. I am only mocking to mask my own deep, dark desire for something to fill that gaping larder-shaped hole in my life).

I say it's that time of year, when in fact such a period doesn't really exist. 'That time of year when cooking programmes are on is EVERY SINGLE DAY. Not that I am against this- I enjoy cookery programmes very much. I, in fact, pray that we will discover the middle name of  Heston 'Blumen'eck, not more liquid nitrogen'  to be secretly Nigellina one day, or for Rick Stein to become Rick SteinGL, just to get those 5 letters involved and complete our foody squadron.

The ever increasing number of cookery shows reveals that we are all lapping them up, drinking it all in, chewing over endless recipes involving goats cheese. We may scoff  (any more food puns, please write in) at much of it, but this is done lovingly in the main.  Most obviously I think about the contrived friend and family set ups we witness, coming around to enjoy this epic feast made in minutes - I look directly at you, Nigella. They're not your friends!  Nigel, forgive me. I applaud you and your meals seemingly for one with accompanying purring cat. The seductive house interiors, complete with mood lighting, which surely make it impossible to ever read the oven dial, too, astound me. We are even being shown how to shop now. I thought I knew how to do this, and reasonably effectively too- shopping trolley steering accidents aside- but apparently not. Countless scenes of local markets, linen shopping bags and cheery exchanges with shop keepers seem to be the only way to do it these days. Well I never.

I fear I lost my way a bit there, apologies. What I intended to say, however, was that despite all these qualms we may have with aspirational cookery shows, we are still rapaciously consuming them. And, in many ways, it is this which is the most intriguing thing. I deliberately use the word 'consuming' because surely the very essence of a programme about food, should be the food itself, and its consumption. Yet, this is the one thing we absolutely cannot do as viewers. There can be no tasting the food, not even a whiff of its homely smell. That is, unless Skyplus has some new snazzy feature I don't know about it.

It seems to be one enormous paradox. They are meant to fill our appetite, yet do the opposite. Only dangling our greatest desires before our very eyes, and on shiny white plates, too. What, then, are we wanting from these shows? And what, ultimately, are we taking from them?  It can't be that much to do with the food. Or at least, not at that very moment of viewing. Is it more about the visual? We can satisfy our pallets by staring at tasty goods, thinking about what someone else might eat. Are we learning to cook?  Some, perhaps, but I'm not sure that too many of us follow these recipes later. I, for one, have never found a lump of gorgonzola at the back of the fridge I might just 'want to use up.' I refuse to even look in that dark, alarmingly chilly, corner of the kitchen.

Is it about transferring our desires  and cravings on to an unreachable platform?* Are we simply seeking comfort and nourishment in times of crisis? Do we enjoy watching a lifestyle that is aspirational, but unlikely (and simultaneously relish mocking it too?). Perhaps all of these things. Perhaps none. Food for thought, anyway.

*Oh, I forgot to say that for at least half of the population, the chance to ogle Nigella probably plays a large part. *Important point.*

Saturday, 8 September 2012

When Postman Pat gave me a shock (and got me thinking).

In a wrongly timed allusion to that famous Christmas poem , in my quiet house this morning it felt as if 'not a creature was stirring, not even mouse.' There I was, quite content, busy enjoying the peace of it all (/contemplating the all important cereal (special K!)/toast for breakfast debate) when I heard a CLUNK in the hallway. The delicate silence had been violated. Curious and, a little alarmed, I immediately ran (too obvious a lie- it's a Saturday, of course I crawled, after some reluctance, out of bed), peered down the stairs only to see what on earth was going on. This disruption, dear Reader, was in fact simply the post being delivered.

Golly Gosh! I am well aware that at this point you are thanking me profusely for entertaining you with such an engaging tale. Post-delivery anecdotes always get people going I know. ..(But genuinely, thank you for still reading...)

What I wanted to share, however, was what this delivery of post suddenly represented to me. There they sat, a couple of envelopes, and some of the usual gaudy take away leaflets, uninvited imposters in my home, invaders into a personal sanctuary.  Too extreme a description? (It's not the post's fault after all!) Yes, yes of course, I am being facetious, and let me now stress that I in fact love receiving post, especially when it is a letter or a card from lovely people.

However, this invasion made me think. These days, so much of our 'post' exists in a technological form, be it an email, a text, a tweet, an instant message etc. Post in all these various shapes drops in to our metaphorical post-filled hallways and 'invades' our lives almost constantly. Of course, we need to be accessible and to access each other easily, and the world's seemingly instant communications are really quite incredible. I don't know what I and we would do without it!

But there are moments, just moments, when part of me wants to run away from it all. Does anyone else feel like that? When on holiday I never want to check my emails, facebook, twitter, you name it, because that is my sanctuary. The postbox is, for a time, nailed shut.

 When it comes to phones, I have always had some 'issues'. I can't help feel (and am sure have shamefully been guilty, I know myself) that all too often we sometimes fail to appreciate the moment or the company we are in, because of the lurking presence of a phone. The chance that someone else might chip in with a text or that something more interesting might emerge on the screen, can pervade the atmosphere and, for me anyway, seem a little rude. Further still, with email accessible on smartphones and the like, when not at work people can still receive work related messages. This can be distracting and destructive to a weekend or holiday. I'm probably far too sensitive to it, and should simply make my peace with an inevitable trend that will only continue to grow, and that I am as much part of, as anyone, of course. But sometimes I think a little sensitivity to good, traditional manners might not be a bad thing. 

Communicating is wonderful, texts are just lovely, phone calls make my day and receiving a letter, well, anyone who ever sends me one receives a thousand bonus points right there. The 24/7 army post invasion however, is a worry.

Sorry Postman Pat- today you triggered a torrent of thoughts, and I just cannot switch them off.

London 2012

 An Olympics which turned so many preconceptions and doubts completely upside down.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Reading between the...subtitles

I, like so many, have been swept up in the craze that is Scandinavian drama. 'Borgen' kept me going through the harsh winter months, whilst 'The Bridge,' (T'Humber Bridge in my mind), through all its adrenaline inducing, Danish- Swedish hybrid angst has been a vital marker during the week. My addiction to these dramas doesn't feel like a guilty one, however, like TV obsessions can sometimes become.  It feels almost....intellectual, and I am fairly certain this is because of their use of subtitles.

What is it about subtitles that seems to make great television? Perhaps it is that the non-English speaking programmes that make it on to our British screens have to be really rather good indeed to sneak their way in to our living rooms.

Perhaps, however, it is the actual subtitles themselves which have an effect. The sheer act of reading the subtitles means we concentrate to an extent we don't necessarily with English speaking programmes, especially in this day and age (yes, I am 80 years old) when one can merely listen passively, whilst simultaneously looking at phone/checking twitter/generally having scarily short attention spans.We become far more involved ... because we have to be.

I wonder to myself further,  is it the notion of reading subtitles, itself, which naturally instils an air of 'Oh yes, this is an intelligent thing to be doing', (smug face, smug face) in the same way that reading a book generally carries intellectual connotations beyond those associated with sitting in front of the television for hours? Both create similar effects. We are cast in to another world, empathising with new characters, engaging with the psychologies of others. Yet one, I suppose, is considered more active. Reading involves a sort of subconscious 'thinking' because we are processing information so much more noticeably and generally so much more privately, too. Subtitles mean we  may share this private reading experience with others. Further still, the private visions conjured up by reading are visually and instantly delivered on to our screens.

 I can't help but feel it is possibly the idea of 'reading in to things', which further adds gravitas to subtitles. Quite literally reading characters' lines, almost in a way that an actor does with their script, means we form a deeper connection with these characters as their words must travel through us as much as they do through them. As subtitles allow us to scrutinise the language on a screen, tangibly before us, we can analyse events perhaps more easily. Or, feel, at least, that we can.

Sometimes, however, I worry I am missing something vital by reading the subtitles. Of course, after a few minutes, it doesn't feel as if I am consciously reading them, but that distraction is always there. Reading a character's emotion through their facial expression is as important as reading their words. Further still, I never find myself thinking 'what terrible acting' during non-English speaking performances, as I might do more generally, because, I suppose, unable to understand them,I have no idea how they are really delivering their words. My engagement is shaped by whatever the subtitles are telling me. Maybe, as a consequence, I make less judgement of my own on characters. The subtle nuances of tone and intonation are lost.

 I warble on about all this, because it intrigues me. I love subtitled programmes, but I love many more that are not. Curiously, I can admit however, that my absolutely favourite thing about 'The Bridge' has nothing to do with its acting, script or subtitled, er, '-ness.' It is its ahhhhh so incredibly powerful and emotive theme tune. It resonates through me every single time. Shivers galore. In music, it seems therefore, we have the most universal language of all. No subtitles necessary.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A point well made

'It seems so easy now to destroy libraries- mainly by taking away all the books- and to say that books and libraries are not relevant to people's lives. There's a lot of talk about social breakdown and alienation, but how can it be otherwise when our ideas of progress remove the centres that did so much to keep people together?'
 Jeanette Winterson.Why be happy when you could be normal?, p.90.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Honesty's Deceits

'Tact looked at truth in vain,
She knew her tongue would end in pain.'

These are the first two lines of a poem a  younger version of myself wrote a few years ago.  I shalln't reveal the rest. These lines are fairly poor. Not too subtle. I promise it only got worse.

Were I able to travel back in time now and speak to myself then would I, then, tell myself that? Would I proffer my harsh, but honest, critique, potentially crushing anymore attempts towards a poetic tendency? Or would I be encouraging and smile, telling myself  'That's pretty good you know! Keep going with it.'

I think it would be the latter.

The truth of the phrase 'honesty is the best policy,' ironically, I occasionally question . This may sound odd. I do not mean, of course, in the sense of its moral value.I will stress now, lying is NOT good. No no no. Truth is good. Yes yes yes.  Even playing a game of 'Cheat' can be, for me, a total guilt-inducing nightmare.

But where my qualms lie is with the moral complications being completely, perhaps brutally, honest can unveil. It seems the phrase 'but, I'm just being honest,' is sometimes held up as some sort of unquestioned moral epicentre. It tends to come after a blunt criticism of another. Can maintaining honesty at all costs justify breaking another moral code? That of simply... being nice to other people? The moral compass seems strangely misguided at times.

There seems this great sense that telling someone a harsh truth may help them in the long run. In some cases, if it will certainly change something/the person for the better, then yes, of course, I suppose it must be done. In the case of my poetry efforts, a level of criticism would probably have done me some good. I know for a fact I would be a terrible creative writing teacher.My students would maybe be happy, but never successful. It is fortunate, therefore, this is not my job.This inability to criticise for the better is a flaw I certainly possess.

But telling someone a truth which will probably achieve little, other than ruin someone else's day, however, seems wrong. Tact, or an avoidance of saying the absolute truth, must always be favourable surely? The phrase 'ignorance is bliss' exists for a reason.

I do think my younger self was on to something. I think some people would disagree and think my argument stupid. They would probably tell me so, too. If I'm honest though, I really wish they wouldn't. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

When thoughts run away with you.

The other day I ran.

I needed to be somewhere, it was cold, it was dark. Running seemed like a good idea.

With increasingly deepening breaths and a heart thumping away in my chest, as if to keep me company in the leering darkness, strange paradoxical feelings crept over me. When I run, when anyone runs, it feels like an act of strength, of fitness,of power, even. Here is the human body at its finest, defying daily lethargy and ordinary movement. It returns us to our primitive instincts.

At the same time, however, I felt scared. I hadn't felt fearful before I began running, but the sheer act alone of running made me feel that this was an escape. I was running away from something. There was a certain vulnerability which sat uncomfortably next to my (non- existent, but let's pretend here for the sake of this prate) athleticism.

I recently saw the film Shame and within it there is a long scene in which the protagonist simply runs. Although an incredibly physical character ( if you know anything about this film you will know what I mean), the act of running was his means of escape, showed his own isolation and loneliness. In another film I love, Truffaut's Les Quatre-Cent Coups there is very famous closing scene in which the main character, a young boy, runs along the beach (also recently echoed, deliberately, in 'Submarine'),again signalling loss and hopelessness, yet at the same time, his ultimate freedom.

There are endless similar examples in culture in which the act of running can symbolise so much. It seems to represent an amalgam of strength, vulnerability, fear, ambition, victory, failure, escape, arrival, <insert contrastings words here.>... I could go on.

Usain Bolt will no doubt be the man everyone watches at the Olympics. Yes, because he is a fun guy and does great arm gestures, but perhaps, also, because he and what he does speaks universally to us, beyond the surface value of  just a simple race. Similarly, marathons draw thousands of people, not only to take part, but to support on the streets, because of this strange allure of running.

Reading this back, I'm not sure I've said anything of use or interest there at all, but it was just a single thought that struck me the other day. And you know how thoughts can run on.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The pull of Hull.

'The air had a very strange smell, the kind that one only finds in Hull.'

I was struck by this line from a novel I am currently reading, Gary Dexter's All the Materials for a Midnight Feast. Firstly, because it incited a little chuckle, reminding me of those (not overly frequent I must stress) mornings I would leave the house in Hull, raise my nose to the sky and detect a familiar, somewhat less than pleasant scent. I never did learn what that was. Some suggested the docks, which made sense, others, curiously, dog biscuits. Where the giant dog biscuit factory is along Newland Avenue, I have no idea, but I would love to know if anyone can enlighten me.

More poignantly, however, Dexter's phrase provoked a deeper, much stronger reaction within me by  capturing, in some way, an essence of the unique bond I feel to Hull. That 'strange smell' is for me, an odd, but all consuming air about the place that gripped me from my very first visit.  This, interestingly enough (or perhaps not, I don't really expect you to be interested) was at a University Open day for my sister, some 8 years before I began my first year. The reassuring feeling of the place stayed with me. That first amble I took along Newland Avenue with my Mum on that day, glimpsing higgledy piggledy second hand shops- an image of a single knock-kneed wooden chair in a window is an image that stays with me -sat, hibernating, for a long time as a very comfortable memory.

This pull to Hull I feel quite clearly emerges in my reading of this book. I can unashamedly say the only reason I chose to read it is because I discovered it was a story about a man reminiscing on his time at University in Hull during the 80s. Within it he maps certain familiar geographical spots, reflecting on his meetings, or more precisely, almost-meetings with Larkin. It is this 'almost-ness' about Hull, a land on the cusp of something wonderful, but never really aware of it, which I love the most. Although I cannot say the novel as a whole grips me, everytime I come across something Hull-related,  my eyes light up just slightly, a little crackle of warm familiarity surging through.

I realise this feeling may be diagnosed as merely a longing for the joys of my now-passed University days,  as of course it is University life I most associate with the city. Perhaps it may not be Hull at all I am so drawn to, but the experience itself. Had I studied anywhere, I feel sure I would maintain a certain attachment. Does everyone feel like this? Perhaps. But it cannot just be that.

Hull of course is now quite a different place to the one I spent three years in, now that so many of the people closest to me during that time are no longer there. Although I am profoundly aware it is the people, I of course miss the most, I can confirm it is actually the place I miss too. When I go back now, I relish that first glimpse of the Humber Bridge as I approach on the train, its dominating stance overlooking the flat landscape beneath. The bridge, to me, represents something of the world's outlook on Hull. There stands this overriding and dominating concept many people have of the city, more often than not unfortunately leaning towards the negative, overpowering the appealing realities beneath this misconception. Presumptions are often made about Hull (often deriving from its name's unfortunate rhyming potential) when people have not even visited it. It is the action of crossing the bridge, indeed physically, but equally mentally to overcome any preconceptions, that allows Hull's charm to be felt.

My favourite spot in Hull, and quite possibly of anywhere (grand claim I know!) is at the very tip of the water front. Here I have felt at my happiest, most free, most comfortable, most inspired.  It is the openness of the water in front of me, but also of the city behind which I like. Although I have experienced standing at this spot in the bleakest of conditions, face attacked by the icy wind, shivering madly, my every sense is always directed towards a feeling of bliss I have rarely felt quite so powerfully anywhere else.

I realise this entire spiel will probably be read as a foolish rose-tinted reflection on a place I should really move on from. Perhaps writing about it will be cathartic and finally unleash me from its grip. Yet I am not sure I really wish to be unleashed. Though physically I have moved on, I cannot believe I will ever be able to quite find again somewhere with 'the peculiar charms of Hull.'*

*From Dexter's All the Materials for a Midnight Feast again.