Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Films, Diplomacy, and Odd Moments of Fellow-Feeling

I got an email from an old school friend the other day who I knew back in sixth-form. She's studying economics now down near London, and planning to live there, so I probably won't see her again until we get our certificates - but it reminded me of how we actually became friends, because, in an odd way, it was all to do with Ridley Scott and Kingdom of Heaven. If it wasn't for that, we'd probably still be just nodding acquaintances.

Back in 2006, when I was a first year sixth-former, we had Theology classes once a week. The teacher was indifferent, the subject primarily to do with drawing cheerful religious posters rather than much actual work, and all in all, it was one of the lessons you set your teeth through, endure silently, and then get out a decent book on anything you want to know. But my friend in question (let's call her X), got called upon to do a presentation on Islam by the teacher, thinking it would be an enriching moment for us all.
Well, schoolkids can be horribly unmerciful. It was the September after there were the bombings in London, and you could just tell, by the bored, self-complacent looks on the faces of a few of the girls, that they were going to bombard poor X with terrible insensitive questions which had nothing to do with actual Islam. And poor X, who had come up with a really informative and entertaining Powerpoint on the subject (I couldn't produce a decent presentation to save my life on my own religion, let alone a Powerpoint) just stood there, looking nervous and embarassed and unhappy, as the teacher handed out slips of paper for us to write out anonymous questions we had for her.
And I couldn't think of anything. My mind went totally blank. Everyone else was writing busily, and I didn't have a decent question in my head. The only thing I really, really wanted to know was...
Does the portrayal of Saladin in Kingdom of Heaven tally with what Muslim historians know about him?
It was the only question I could think of, but I used it in the end, knowing it sounded stupid. Besides, what if she hadn't even seen the film? It was a ridiculously nerdy question, and I was half-tempted to just not hand in a question. But, for some reason, I let it stand.
X was very patient throughout the whole Q and A session, mostly fielding questions like 'what's the veil thing called?'
I thought she'd ignore mine. It wasn't exactly relevant, after all. But it was something I really wanted to know, and I was resigned to being a polite nuisance when, at the very end of the lesson, she said 'Who asked the Kingdom of Heaven question?'

I tentatively stuck my hand up, thinking I was going to be pilloried by the teacher for this. But X looked really, genuinely interested - and then she went on to give a wonderful explanation about the subject. It turned out she adored the movie too! it was she who first mentioned Imad al Din to me, although it was some time before I associated him with Balian's encounter in the desert. Okay, so it was off-topic, and we bored the rest of the class stiff with our medieval history swapping. But it was a real connection that day, and it began a really great friendship for the next two years.
And all through a moment's obsession! Although, in the end, it turned out to be quite ironic. A boy in my class - in fact the only boy in my class, through a freak of class planning, got rather heated when we discussed Reynaud de Chatillon. He belonged to the 'Da-Vinci Code' cult and had a deluded image of the Templars as perfect guardians of secret truths. I feel slightly guilty about shattering his illusions (just slightly, mind you); we argued about it every day for the next three months of Theology classes until I persuaded him to watch the movie.
Life's an odd thing. But it's great that even in odd moments you can find felloe sympathisers, and that's possibly one of my best memories of sixth-form.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Fanfiction I Have Tried to Write

"Dots are believed by many writers of our day to be a good substitute for effective writing. They are certainly an easy one. Let us have a few more......"
M.R. James, Stories I Have Tried To Write

It would appear that writers (good, bad, ugly, or indifferent) all know this feeling. It's the feeling of being haunted by the Ghosts Of Stories Past. The alternate story-lines. The ways It Could Have Gone, only to eventually culminate in a frusrated deleting of files and much screwing up of paper and gnashing of teeth all round. Sometimes stories just don't want to be written, and they'll fight you all the way for that inch of debated ground.
Personally, I blame the characters. They have entirely themselves to blame.
Fairly recently, after protracted and very, very boring readings of Moby Dick, I had an idea of livening things up a little with the thunderous ramblings of good old Captain Ahab. After checking to see whether a niche as romantic hero had been filled in the pantheon of fanfiction (No, by the way. The only fic to date that isn't slash is about the good Captain working in er... Starbucks), I decided to be a pioneer for romance in Melville. Ahab is a tragic Heathcliff/Mr Rochester-esque figure! After a lifetime of chasing whales with 'smoking fury', he finally finds solace in the arms of a Mary-Sue by the name of Penitence Harnett (but a demure Quaker one, and certainly female) until his restless obsession finally led him onwards to his tragic death. It was brilliant! Ahab's past cranked up every Victorian melodrama lever you could mention. I successfully wrote about the madness of his mother (throwing herself off a cliff into the sea at his christening, after giving him a terrible blasphemous name), it was full speed ahead for all-out romance...
And then it stopped. Dead. I couldn't write another word. I had the plot, everything fleshed out. But I just couldn't write Ahab. After a while, I gave up trying.
Personally, I sometimes wonder if it was some sort of character protest against taking him in vain, but why protest at that and not the slash and Starbucks? It was very mild mockery compared to some things.
It may resurface eventually if I can get past the block and, verily, find myself a window into the 'Old Mogul's' madness. Forsooth, t'is an arduous task.

Another fic I never wrote was a Tiberias/OC Kingdom of Heaven thing. I know, I know, I was stupid - besides, a very little research reveals his wife Eschiva, and the actual history alone offers far more intriguing possibilities. I learnt that early on in my writing career. But originally Tu Salus Fidelium was going to be just that. Possibly there are still dim traces of it in the early chapters.

Not to mention the re-animated spectre of a Frankenstein fiction. Gothic early nineteenth century style doesn't seem to have been attempted so far, and I am quite willing to try my hand at a little Mary Shelley fun . 'These visions faded when I perused, for the first time, those poets whose effusions entranced my soul and lifted it to heaven.'

Ah well. These are all dim reproachful shades at the moment. But nice to bear in mind, certainly :P

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Portrait of a Lady-in-Waiting...

There's a lot of history behind this picture. I thought I'd take time out to write a short, sweet little vignette explaining how Mirrum came into being (even subconsciously at age seven).
Our public library back in 1996 was er... interesting. Limited, one might say, in books - which is an odd thing for a library -eg, a place of worship for readers everywhere. Not having books there is rather like a place of worship without a God - lonely, faintly out of place - and in this case, desperately dull. Harry Potter isn't even invented yet. A small seven year old girl is flicking through the 'children's books.' Unfortunately she's grown out of Spot's First Day At School - and she never liked Dr Seuss. However, she's discovered King Arthur in a book of children's stories (although all the meaning behind the er... romances have passed her by. Innocence is a wonderful thing.) And what does she stumble upon?
An almost word for word children's illustrated translation of the Lays of Marie de France. Now, this is like finding gold dust in a heap of sand. Most of the older children's books are strictly educational back in 1996 - or else given worthy titles like Why Do People Have to Die, Mummy?
And there's this picture on the front of the book. It's from Lanval.
Now, on reading the story, the fair damsel is absolutely nothing like Mirrum. For one thing, she's the sort of fairy lady who casually hangs about half-dressed in a silk tent offering affection, associated er - activities to do with love, and 'never-ending wealth' to the first knight that comes along - on condition he never boasts about her. She's your generic 'wish-fulfilment' for the medieval man. It was an odd book for a little girl. But kudos to the artistic genius of Angela Barrett that she doesn't make the fairy damozel look like the mythical floozy she was in the story. She has a certain intelligent.... look, about her. Not exactly beautiful, but - arresting. I hunted fruitlessly for this book for years until I finally tracked it down second-hand on Amazon. She just is Mirrum, down to a T. I don't think I even realised I'd had the illustration in my mind when writing until I opened the package and there it was.
Wow... I suppose it illustrates the point (or substantiates the argument for, as my tutors are always saying) that the subconscious holds more things than we actually realise...

Monday, 10 November 2008

A Post at Last! Embarassing Literary Crushes....

Eep - I have no excuse for my absence here - apart from a total of three essays on the subtleties of English literature and all due in by next week. The pressure is mounting, tensions are running high, the Humble Author is in a state of mental prostration and wombles round her room laughing maniacally....The usual thing. But because I'll eventually go insane if I work non-stop on said essays, I thought I'd take time out from my bust schedule to think about the pleasant subject of literary crushes as the dark months lie ahead.

This has been running through my head some little while, and finally the 'love that dare not speak its name' must be brought into daylight.

It's the er... crush on literary characters. Everyone's had them. I don't know a single female who's never had a crush on some of the populist ones : Mr Darcy, for example. Everyone has them. But... we never speak of them. Or if we do, it's with an uneasy nod to actors rather than the characters. Because whilst lusting after actors is permissible (they're real, tangible people, after all) it often meets with strange looks if one casually mentions the fact you prefer the book Mr Darcy to say, Colin Firth. Or the awful posturing of Matthew Macfayden in the film with Keira Knightley.

So! Here's a list of some of the weird, wonderful crushes that book-obsessed little girls can have, in no particlular order:

Brian de Bois-Gilbert, Ivanhoe:
In the thinking, reasoning nineteen-year old self I posess now, I would rather chew off my own foot than ever develop a passion for a lying, treacherous, kidnapping, and generally bad, BAD man of a Knight Templar merely because the hero was boring as ditchwater, but my wide eyed eleven-year old self didn't think so. I mean, he was smouldering. Even when betraying Richard the Lionheart and carrying off fair maidens across his saddle.... I mean, wow. Seriously wow at the time. Plus he had a "tragic" reason for being a pillaging heartless murderer. It took my small pretty little fairytale images of knights and made them into medieval smouldering bad boys. Sir Walter Scott always wrote amazingly good villains and then gives us the most insipid heroes to feel sympathy for. If anyone can track down the TV series on DVD (which I have on VHS) it's well worth your while for lovely Crusade goodness. Alas, the DVD version is Region One, so I'd have to order it from America.

Brian de Bois-Gilbert probably started off my predilection for dark smouldering Byronic heroes, because I moved on to...

Mr Rochester, Jane Eyre:

Yes, I know - this is technically populist. But I've not yet seen a television adaptation that lived up to Mr Rochester yet. Toby Stephens was pretty close (and the 2006 version had a convincing solution to the problem of the gypsy woman disguise! Anyone who's seen the 1983 BBC version will know what I mean - it takes more than Timothy Dalton cackling in a shawl, that's for sure).

And none of the films have got it right. Ever. So as yet, the perfect Mr Rochester stays inside my head. I never quite got into Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, though. Sure, he's tragic, but hold the mindless brutality, please. I like a thinking hero.

Er...The Monster, Frankenstein:

Based purely on an Angela Barrett illustration for a children's book on Mary Shelley, Through The Tempests Dark and Wild (Angela Barrett is my illustrator's God. Seriously. A long while ago when I was a wobbly six-year old she illustrated a children's version of Marie de France - and there's a pale, fair-haired maiden on the front who just coincidentally faintly resembles Mirrum...) But here it is! The Monster, in all its wild, lonely glory, meeting it's true, sympathetic creator on a lightning-riven mountainside. The fics that would stream from this single image! The poetry! The drama! the poignancy of it all! It's not Birs Karloff hamming it up for the 1930s - it's a genuinely moving image, and far truer to the book's description than any adaptation yet.

Stephen Maturin, The Patrick O Brien series.

My dad read a Patrick O Brien every summer when we went on holiday during my childhood until the books ran out. I wish I had his stamina - I tried, truly I did. But good old Jack Aubrey and belaying and avasting the mainmast staysails often got the better of me as a child. But, in between skipping confusedly to the front page to stare at the ship diagram on the front page, and trying to decipher what on earth the foc'sle was, I delighted in reading the coherent passages about Stephen Maturin. Paul Bettany wasn't quite how I imagined him, but the strength of the role - and the film , although Russell Crowe isn't quite my Jack Aubrey - persuaded me to try them again.

I'm still all at sea (pardon the pun). Perhaps one day a flash of illumination will descend and I'll be able to talk salt sea-dogisms with the best of them. One day...

Mr Tilney, Northanger Abbey:

The nicest Regency gentleman I ever met in fiction! Becuase, let's face it - whilst like every swooning fan I had hopes to be an Elizabeth Bennett - I can't get rid of the nagging suspicion Mr Darcy would let out a contemptuous snort and walk away upon sight of me. I have the ghost of a thought I'm a Mary Bennett earnestly bent over the tweinty-first century equivalent of Fordyce's Sermons. Edward Ferrars? Too weak-minded. Colonel Brandon? Not likely to fall for my girlish naivete. Although Captain Wentworth could be added to my collection of nautical gentlemen. And I always detested Fanny in Mansfield Park. She's too simpering. But Mr Tilney - he's kind, has a pleasant sense of humour - enjoys teasing Catherine Moreland for her ghoulish fascination in a mocking but gentle way, delightfully level-headed when it comes to it, and an all-round pleasant gentleman who comes to the aid of embarassed females in Bath assembly rooms. Wet shirts and Darcy be damned - Tilney's the man for me.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Marcus Aurelius and Me, or: Beware Author's Devices!

A suitably morbid little blog which a comes a few days too late for Halloween, but there you go. Here it is...
Okay. The following is a true story.
Some time ago for reasons which may (or may not) be clear, I was looking for some good, decently archaic examples of Classic Literature. Preferably Latin/Greek, well-established, wise - oh, and preferably offering an insight into the moment I was trying to capture in my KOH fic. Well, it so happened that flicking through the Oxford Book of Quotations wasn't quite enough - that led me to Catullus, which was a BIG mistake. Catullus, in addition to translating some lovely poems in the Carmine, also wrote some of the filthiest Latin verse known to man. It wouldn't be written on toilet walls today. Or, rather, it would. But on from Catullus -
A chance mention in East of Eden led me to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. I stumbled across a cheap copy in a 3 for 2 book offer, thought the writing sounded excellent stuff for a certain character of mine - and hey presto! I was off without a second thought. For me, it merely added to the intellectual perplexity of the (shall we say, protagonist) without actually considering what I was quoting from.
Now, 'Ware Author's Devices! I don't know if Melville ever paused in his writing to declaim Shakespearean monologues to the cat, or whether any author actually goes on to do something they only wrote about for a dramatic purpose. Probably they do it before, if possible. But in my case I quite happily wrote about consulting Marcus Aurelius, and then went on to do it in a moment of indecision. My reasons weren't very noble, I have to say - I was in two minds about something really very everyday. You know the mood - where you'll happily toss a coin, do 'eeny-meeney-miney-mo' - settle for anything that makes up your mind.
The creepy thing? Marcus Aurelius works. Seriously. if you're ever in two minds about something, Marcus Aurelius makes up your mind for you...
Hmm, perhaps I sense material for a fic here - long-dead Roman emperors controlling the mind from beyond the grave...