City Lights

Shouting from the rooftops

City Lights

City Lights

Whilst in California over Christmas I fell into the welcoming arms of the City Lights bookshop, hiding from the rain and the tramps and the strip clubs along Broadway Street. I took surreptitious photographs of signs which had been smirked and smiled for decades by generations of devoted readers; I pretended to read poetry books (because after all, what else could one do in the shop which kicked off the Beat phenomenon with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl); and after about half an hour I found myself tucked into a corner in the basement, eyeball deep in biography. And not just any biography – culinary biography. And not just any culinary biography, but Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child (2012).

Dearie by Bob Spitz

Dearie by Bob Spitz

Julia Child had hovered on the edge of my culinary conscience for years. I cannot remember exactly where I first came across her – possibly through my grandmother, who is a phenomenal cook herself and has been valiantly feeding a family of six children, thirteen grandchildren, and three fostered Chinese students for over seventy years. My grandmother had been to the States, where she picked up a cowboy cookbook (one of the first things I ever made from it was Billy-can brownies), and illustrated an expat cookery volume during her years living in Hong Kong called Cooking with Corona. She had also bestowed upon me three bound boxes full of the Cordon-Bleu Cookery School course in weekly magazines (which I am yet to make anything from), and a delight in all things extravagant, delicious, and dramatic. Her major outlets for this enjoyment of excess are her devout Catholicism (she is the only person I know who has a signed dispensation to take food before Mass when pregnant) and in her cookery. She snorts when she laughs, pronounces chocolate with three syllables, and still pickles and preserves at the age of 90. In my mind, she is a little like a short, Catholic, British Julia Child.

I devoured Dearie in a few days, all 535 pages of it, against the backdrop of San Francisco’s parks, cafes and our hostel room with its overpowering aroma of Chinese food. My husband was at a conference all day and most of each evening, which gave me ample time to read and recreate Child in my imagination. I watched snippets of her cookery shows, and cooked absolutely nothing except scrambled eggs and beans. But I fell in love with her, and a little more with America, through Bob Spitz’s writing. Although his prose tends to cliché, it is vibrant and jolly and likeable – all aspects which I immediately transferred to Child. I liked her guts, the way she made French cooking her own in America, her total commitment to fun and joy and joie de vivre. Here was a woman who didn’t want to be tiny, good, quiet, modest – she couldn’t help but be statuesque, naughty, loud and passionate. She immediately made it onto my mental list of female role models (or ‘women I wish I was more like’), where she holds court in the good company of Tove Jansson, Gwyneth Lewis, Margaret Bennett Jenny Uglow, Jack Monroe et al.

Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia

Then yesterday, on my first day without a job and living in Edinburgh, I found Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia (2005) – in hardback for £3 from the Shelter shop in Morningside, since you ask. I hadn’t seen the film, which came out in 2009, but again it had been lurking in the brain-shadows, so I snapped up the book and finished it about an hour ago.

Julie Powell feels like I do about Julia – and the popularity of her blog, book and film suggests we aren’t the only ones. For us, Julia stands for being feminine and joyous, unapologetic in her enjoyment of life and food and drink. She makes us believe that if we have any of those nascent characteristics within ourselves, then we should embrace them and shout them from the rooftops. So this is me, shouting from this virtual rooftop (although I could do it almost from our actual rooftop, as the flat’s a top-floor one): have the courage to do whatever it is that brings you joy. Share it around as much as you can, give it out, out, out. Today, this brought me joy:

Daffodils on my 'desk'

Daffodils on my ‘desk’

not just the bright colours of the flowers, but the fact it was my first day working at my new desk (well, table – but beggars/bloggers can’t and all that) and that I’d managed to write a first draft of a poem, two paragraphs on my embryonic biography project, three letters and this blog. Now, off to the lovely Meadowberry for frozen yoghurt and free Wifi to post this…

Pandaemonium

Pandaemonium

A while ago, I wrote a post for the Wordsworth and Romanticism blog. I then forgot about it and voila – it is now published! You can pop over for a look here or read it in full below:

Anyone who is even faintly familiar with the major events in the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge will have a field day watching Julian Temple’s quasi-biopic Pandaemonium. I recommend inviting your literary-inclined friends round for an evening of riotous entertainment, watching the film whilst taking part in the following themed drinking game which embodies the ‘spirit(s) of the age’ and gets you through the film’s 125 minutes without spiralling into artistic despair and literary indignation:

  • Challenge your guests to each bring a beverage inspired by Romantic literature. Suggestions could include: Rime of the Ancient Grand Marnier, Hartley Wallbanger, or even Sex on the Bysshe.
  • Line up your beverages within easy reach of the screen, along with plenty of snacks to soak up the alcohol. With revolution in mind, and tongue firmly in cheek, how about some revolutionary biscuits? – Garibaldis and Bourbons should be first on your list.
  • The rules are: drink every time you spot an anachronism or gross misappropriation of historical events. Eat a biscuit every time a government agent appears to spy on a revolutionary writer.
  • Drunk on inaccuracies and high on sugar, plot the revolution (or even just the film) anew with your inebriated acquaintances.

Of course, this is all in jest – but you have to hope that the film was made in this spirit too. The major questions of historical accuracy and authentic portrayal of characters and events have already been dealt with at length by the Guardian’s John Sutherland when the film first emerged. It would be tedious for me to simply list all the travesties of inaccuracy and character assassinations; this is really a film which attempts to posit Coleridge as the true –though flawed – genius of the Romantic age, portraying Wordsworth as a jealous power-hungry snitch, Byron as a foppish social commentator à la Russell Brand, and Dorothy Wordsworth as a rude and prematurely maddened bossy boots with a predilection for ill-advised romantic attachments. The characters verge on caricature and the past is awkwardly melded with images from the present (STC on the London Eye is a particular low point). High art it ain’t.

But the trouble with Pandaemonium is that you can’t simply dismiss it as a bad work of fiction. It is underpinned by just enough instances from the lives of Coleridge and Wordsworth to be partly plausible: Coleridge and Wordsworth really did create Lyrical Ballads together in the Quantocks in the late 1790s, Coleridge really did write ‘Frost at Midnight’ inspired by the birth of his son Hartley, and the composition of ‘Kubla Khan’ really was interrupted by the infamous ‘person from Porlock’ (although I think this is the first time that Wordsworth has been suggested as that person). It is also a rare example of a film which details the process of literary composition (other notable examples are Jane Campion’s brilliant Bright Star and the popular Shakespeare in Love), and for that alone it is to be commended. It falls between the two stools of fantasy and biography, and as such it gives the discerning viewer a bit of a genre headache – is it simply too inaccurate to be trusted, but it does contain a few kernels of fact.

Instead, the film seems to be an experiment in cinematic biofiction, a curious genre that takes people and places from real life but shapes them in a new image through fantasy dialogue and narrative. Could it even be viewed more as a kind structured reality, a literary prototype of shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex, in the way it melds fantasy and reality? Like them, it isn’t critically acclaimed, but both challenge what we trust to be ‘real’ and what we perceive as ‘truth’. As an aside, Dorothy Wordsworth is portrayed by Emily Woof, the daughter of the foremost authority on Dorothy Wordsworth, Pamela Woof. Whilst one can imagine the horror of the academic at the inaccuracies of the film, one does have to marvel at life and art’s continued intertwining.

But is the film faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the work of those early Romantics? Let’s look to that great manifesto for the Romantic movement, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, penned by Wordsworth during the time shown in Pandaemonium:

The principal object…was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them… in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.

Does Pandaemonium use incidents from real life, in accessible language, imaginatively portrayed? Yes, yes it absolutely does. Does it encourage its audience to consider aspects of human nature and what drives people creatively, whether it be inspiration, opiates, jealously, or companionship?  Again, yes. The only trouble with the film is that is it just doesn’t do it very well. Their lofty aims are to be applauded, but the film fails on its execution. And in that, perhaps, they share something with those first efforts of Wordsworth and Coleridge – without the Preface mentioned above, the Lyrical Ballads poorly received and misunderstood by its first audience. Perhaps someone needs to go back and help Julian Temple and Frank Cottrell Boyce to hone their ideas, place them within a tangible and relevant context, and for goodness sake give Dorothy something other than that dreadful leather jacket to wear.

Mr Turner

This is usually a book blog but today I am making an exception and writing about a film instead. Fear not: the film in question is a biopic, and this review will address many of the questions which are pertinent to life-writing too. If you haven’t yet seen Mr Turner I heartily recommend that you do, or at the very least watch this little snippet to get your eye in:

Mr Turner: an unassuming title for a film with the difficult task of portraying a man of deep and sometimes troubling contradictions. As someone with only a lay(wo)man’s knowledge of art history, I cannot add anything new to the debates about whether or not the recently released film is historically accurate – however, what I do know is that Turner was a controversial figure in his own time and almost universally adored today: this film was always going to have to tread carefully around the approbation of his aficionados.

Although some people have found this portrayal of greatness almost sacrilegious in its failure to present a sanitised, attractive Turner, someone worthy of their worship, I loved this warts and all representation of a great artist’s life. The sex scenes are unsexy, as sex often is. The relationships are complex – how can a man so passionately devoted to and understood by his father be so cruelly indifferent to his own children? – but then show me a relationship which isn’t. Death is preceded by ill-health, men die unglamorously: this is the stuff of real lives. Grunting, overweight, roughly accented, sometimes unloving, sometimes in love, friendly and contrary in equal measure: Timothy Spall’s Turner is the roughest and most brilliant of diamonds; intensely human – but a rare and gifted one, absorbed by art and lift and the mysteries of the universe.

What I admired most about this film is that it resists the temptation to give a falsely uplifting or climatic narrative to Turner’s life. It would have been so easy to deliver a ‘feel-good’ or ‘rags-to-riches’ film – and Turner’s life story could be said to fit within those plot arcs (he was the son of a London barber who became the nation’s best-loved artist), but Mike Leigh neatly sidesteps these artistic cul-de-sacs: he expertly mingles the cheeky joy of Happy Go Lucky with darker moments more akin to Vera Drake and gives us neither a happy ending nor a sad one. Very rarely do even (or especially?) famous people’s lives take a graceful parabola of success, their last years suffused with the halcyon glow of glory. More often, their fortunes wax and wane, family members arrive and depart their world, old age and ill-health dog their final years.

The film’s physical intimations of mortality (pace Wordsworth) are grotesque, startlingly visceral: almost Dickensian in their red-bloodedness. But I love it all the more for this: that someone so remarkable as Turner would have been anything other than intense and full-bodied in the way he lived his life seems unthinkable.

The other trap that this film avoids is the classic ‘fallen hero’ slide into poverty, ignominy or pathos which often accompany the portrayal of aging. Turner’s life could have been viewed in these terms too, as he became a Royal Academician at the youngest age permissible (24) yet became ever more secretive and eccentric in his personal life as the years passed. Marion Bailey’s Sophia Booth, Turner’s final lover at whose house he breathes his last, brings terrific warmth in the way she shows that the love affairs of old age can be just as fun and loving as those of younger folk. Turner’s intrinsic character remains steadfast throughout: he is recognisably the same man at 60 that he was at 40, self-possessed, driven, earthy, and true to his own world view. Just as the film doesn’t follow glory with glory, neither does despair follow relentless despair as death approaches.

I also loved the film for its attempt to show on screen that most elusive and deeply personal thing, the creative process. Bright Star, one of my favourite films, does this superbly; even the less-than-great Pandemonium makes a valiant stab. Mr Turner is similar to Girl with a Pearl Earring in the way it recreates particular pictures: The Fighting Temeraire is the most obvious one, but I get the feeling that several of the beautiful still shots (like the one which opens the film – see pictures below) are attempt to show how Turner was inspired to create works which are less well-known.

Fighting Termeraire, JMW Turner

Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner

Fighting Termeraire: film still from Mr Turner

Fighting Temeraire: film still from Mr Turner

These stills are beautiful – I just wish I knew more about Turner’s paintings to be able to recognise them on sight. Still, no time like the present to better acquaint myself with his work, as this fabulous exhibition is on in London until 25 January…