A funny thing happened…

I have an idea for a project. It’s going to be called, “A funny thing happened…” It could be an exercise in journalism or a shared history project or maybe just story-telling for its own sake, and I’m asking for contributions from YOU. That’s right, YOU.

I want you to tell me about a funny thing that happened – to you, to someone you know, to someone that someone you know knows, it doesn’t matter. It could be tiny. It could be huge. It could be something that seemed insignificant at first, but set off a chain of events with far-reaching consequences. It could be personal. It could be global. It could be funny, haha. It could be sad. It could be wonderful or awful or just plain weird.

The main thing is, it should be unexpected – something you never expected to do, to have done to you, to happen at all. You can make it anonymous or put your name to it. You can write it yourself and email it to me, tell me it over some type of messaging app, or call me up and I’ll write it down and tell it for you (that one’s probably only for people I already know, at least at first!)

I can’t promise you fame or fortune – I don’t expect either for myself – but I’d really like to give this a go. I’ll either publish it here alongside the usual content, or perhaps set up a wholly new blog for it. I want to take the time to try to make this something good. I figure people have ideas all the time and sometimes, those ideas take wing. Why shouldn’t this be one of those ideas? I might have to get the ball rolling myself, but let’s just see what happens, anyway. And if anyone feels kind enough to share this around, I’d be extremely grateful!

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Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

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Here’s something to make you feel old: Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann’s seminal modern take on Shakespeare’s glorious tragedy, turns twenty this year. Partly for this reason and partly because someone covered Des’ree’s transcendent Kissing You on The Voice the other night (yes, I watch The Voice. Don’t judge me), I decided to rewatch it this weekend. The first time I watched it was on the big screen and I can still remember the way it made me feel. I was just on the cusp of little kid-dom and adolescence, teetering on the brink of becoming a teenager, and I had a huge crush on Leonardo DiCaprio, made even more intense by this movie. I have a feeling I was allowed to go and see it because it was Shakespeare and therefore educational (it came out in the UK in 1997 and it was a 12 rating. I would have been 11), but it made me feel rebellious. It was a violent, beautiful, colourful riot and I understood very little of the dialogue, but it stayed with me.

I’ve watched it again a few times over the years – far less repeatedly than a lot of other movies during my adolescence (cough Clueless cough), but it’s retained its power in a way those other films haven’t. The last time must have been a good few years ago – possibly even as much as a decade ago – and some of its foibles stand out more now. It is EXTREMELY SHOUTY, and suffers for it because a lot of the beautiful language gets lost. The sound effects and cinematography, in that way of which Luhrmann was so fond in the 1990s (see Strictly Ballroom), are also offputtingly cartoonish in places, which can be distracting. But as a whole, it all still works. Its true success is in how accessible it is – how relateable. It gives life to the pain and power and overwrought emotion of being a teenager, when being in love is everything, and being apart is the end of the world – equally true then, now and in 1597, when it was first published.

Aside from anything else, it is a hymn to the 1990s. The Hawaiian shirts, the baggy jeans, the cars, the music, the hair, the guns – all are inescapably present, and even now, they still seem desperately, filthily cool. It helps that this decade is back in fashion, but the aesthetic of the film still seems wonderfully stylish – everything dusty, everything dirty, everything baked under the Mexican sun. I didn’t know until embarrassingly recently that it was mostly filmed in Mexico City, and the location lends it that extra layer of grit and grime that makes it work so well.

The best thing about it is that, even though I know what’s going to happen, I still can’t help thinking, ‘if only he could get the letter in time, if only Juliet could wake up even thirty seconds sooner, if only she’d just run away with him in the first place’. Traditional stagings can lose that because of the difference in pacing, and in fact, the shoutiness actually helps in some ways. When used properly (which, admittedly, it mostly isn’t) it lends an extra dimension of desperation and tension.

As an aside, DiCaprio was only 21 when it was made, and Claire Danes (Juliet) just 17, and they both look like such babies – but it’s far less creepy than it could have been. Apparently, Natalie Portman was originally cast as Juliet and she would have been 14 at the time – acceptable in the late 16th century, perhaps, but not in the late 20th.

As a second aside, one other key reason for writing this blog is to find out if someone could tell me where in the film #1 Crush, by Garbage, appears. I’ve picked up the little snippet of The Cardigans’ Lovefool (the other one that was driving me crazy) but I cannot for the life of me figure out which scene #1 Crush is in. This has been bothering me, as we’ve established, for nearly twenty years now. Someone help!

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High-Rise ****

The richer you are, the higher your floor. The higher your floor, the more power and importance you have. This is High-Rise.

Seeing JG Ballard’s brutal satire/allegory on modern class and capitalism made flesh is…intense. I knew roughly what to expect, having at least started to read the book, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the full-on visual assault. This is important: know what you’re letting yourself in for. A friend’s mum found out, to her cost, that you shouldn’t see it just because you like Tom Hiddleston.

It’s relentless, ugly, violent – and completely plausible. It’s also darkly comic and alarmingly immediate. It’s nominally set in the 1970s (the novel was published in 1975) but this could so easily be happening right now – and that’s part of what makes it so disturbing and so fun to watch at the same time. I never felt terribly far removed from the characters.

The film is a visceral wonder. There are bravura performances from Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing, the quietly repressed medical lecturer who finds himself present just as the chaos descends, and Luke Evans as Richard Wilder, the documentary film maker, who all too quickly gives in to his animal impulses. There’s also a notable turn (and a decent English accent) from Elisabeth Moss, as Wilder’s heavily pregnant wife, and from Sienna Miller, as the louche “widow” Charlotte Melville. Director Ben Wheatley brilliantly captures exactly how easy it is for supposedly civilised people to detach themselves from the world as they’ve always known it – to revert to their primal instincts, to descend into madness and chaos, and then finally, to come to consider that chaos “normal”. They don’t want to leave it: they like it. This is their new way of life. This is high rise society, and high rise society is one long party – albeit not a party you might recognise as such.

What it demonstrates is that there’s perhaps only a cigarette paper between us, the viewer (or reader), and the characters on screen (or on the page).

Although, as the friend I saw it with pointed out, the sexual content is relatively restrained given the subject matter, the violence and gore are pretty graphic, and certainly not for those of a squeamish disposition. Be warned – and this is a slight spoiler – there is a scene at the beginning that involves a cadaver’s head, and one later that involves the discovery of a human ear. It works, though. Graphic though it is, none of it feels gratuitous.

One of the only failings, I think, (spoiler again) is the extremely heavy handed use of the Margaret Thatcher speech in the film’s final scene. Also, you’ll notice the cigarettes and booze never seem to run out, even when the inhabitants of the high rise have resorted to eating their pets.

I’m off to read the rest of the book now…

High-Rise is in cinemas now

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What I’ve been doing lately

Friends, it’s been a while – again. Here’s the thing: sometimes, my brain doesn’t let me do the things I want to do. Sometimes, it gets itself so twisted and tangled that even doing simple things becomes difficult. The last few weeks have been a bit like that. I don’t want to go into too much detail, as it’s very personal and this is the wrong place for that. It’s just a little aside to explain long absences. So. To business.

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I watched Koch Brothers Exposed with some colleagues recently, and I feel I have to say upfront that it’s problematic. It’s wholly one-sided and completely unobjective. Its production values are shaky at best and its heavy-handed use of graphics and music quickly becomes jarring. That being said, it’s a fascinating watch and certainly eye-opening – the content, if true, is terrifying. Aside from anything else, it’s an unsettling insight into American politics and exactly how fucked up they’ve become. The whole thing is available on YouTube, should you care to watch for yourself.

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I also went to see Deadpool with Husband, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is exactly as stupid as it’s been described, and a welcome return to comedic form for Ryan Reynolds. It is a bit too meta for its own good and the whole breaking-the-fourth-wall thing does get a bit intrusive, but it’s good for a laugh if you’re after something that’s not too taxing.

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Lastly, because Valentine’s Day’s just gone, I thought I’d give a little nod to a lovely evening with Husband. I bought him some uber fancy coffee and he got me some beautiful flowers, and we had a lovely lamb chop dinner while watching, appropriately enough, Date Night. It’s gaping with plot holes, but funny and cute enough to carry it, and rounded off our own date night just nicely.

Until the next time, friends.

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David Bowie: icon, Starman, gender renegade

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This morning, the world woke up with a jolt to find David Bowie had died, aged 69. He’d been suffering from cancer for the last eighteen months, so the papers say, but his death still seemed sudden: he’d only just released a new album (Blackstar), and there were no hints that he might be dying. With hindsight, of course, it seems Blackstar might have been something of an epitaph.

Much will be written about him (including a lot of “live updates”, which are pretty silly given the circumstances) in the coming days. Some will be good, some will be bad. Say what you will about him as a person, though, his status as a cultural icon is undeniable. He was a progenitor of glam rock, an endless innovator and an unashamed freak. I mean that in the best way: he wasn’t afraid to experiment and to work outside the boundaries of what was considered “normal”. He made it ok for men to be pretty and for anyone who’d ever felt “different” to embrace that and rejoice in it.

I don’t necessarily consider myself a fan. I don’t own any of his albums. But his wider influence still permeates many of my memories – I first became aware of him as a small child thanks to Top of the Pops 2 and Sounds of the 70s. I loved his amazing make-up and costumes. Some of my favourite songs are his (All The Young Dudes, Life on Mars, Starman). He seemed permanent, somehow – as though he’d always be there, ten steps ahead of the rest of us, doing whatever the hell he wanted and looking damn cool doing it.

For that, I say rest in peace. I say I’m glad you’ve gone home, Starman.

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Serial, season 1 – finally joining the party

If there’s one thing to be said about the first Serial podcast, it’s that having to listen to it week by week must have been a nightmare. Husband finally persuaded me to listen to it this week, in readiness for starting on the next one, and we binged our way through the whole thing in about two days.

For those even later to the party than I was, the first series looks into the case of Adnan Syed, the Baltimore man serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. I won’t go into too many of the details – it is very much worth listening to the podcast if you haven’t already and I don’t want to spoil it – but the gist of it is that Syed has always maintained his innocence, and journalist Sarah Koenig was approached by Rabia Chaudry, the sister of Syed’s best friend, to look into the case.

In short, now that I’ve listened to the whole thing, I get it. I get why so many people were utterly hooked on this series. It is absolutely enthralling. Specifics aside – even without worrying about spoilers, it would be impossible to go into all of it – Koenig is a master storyteller. She draws you into the case, gradually unfolding it episode by episode, delving into evidence, taped police interviews, court testimony, the memories of friends of Syed’s and of Hae’s, their teachers, family, acquaintances – everyone she can think of who may be able to shed light on the matter.

At the end of it, of course, she doesn’t really reach any conclusions – how could she? One must remember that that’s not her remit. She’s not a legal professional or in any way involved in law enforcement. She’s a journalist with a natural curiosity in the case, and that curiosity does eventually turn into a bit of an obsession, but there are avenues she can’t pursue, lines of enquiry she can’t follow: she can’t compel people to talk to her, however frustrating that may be. All she can do is try to reopen some doors and find some answers that might eventually lead to a somewhat clearer picture, which she does.

What she does so well is use the audio she’s collected to weave a completely fascinating tale – her descriptions are so vivid, her narrative so engaging that she doesn’t really need much other than her own voice, some taped interviews and a bit of music. I can see why she became so deeply involved in this story, too. Of course, the whole narrative is inevitably coloured by her opinions and perceptions: as listeners, we can only follow where she leads. She’s not overbearing, though, and the really compelling thing about it is how easy it is to identify with her. In her shoes, we’d all feel as confused and intrigued as she does. As a journalist, I also found it interesting to see which issues she focused on and which she left aside. I’m not sure I’d have gone about it exactly the same way but then I don’t have access to all the information she did, and you have to remember this is actually an active case again – there will be a hearing at which the testimony of an alibi witness is heard and the reliability of cellphone tower evidence is questioned – so there are certain things that can’t be discussed. Also, if you can’t stand something up, as a journalist, you can’t make it public, especially where criminal allegations are concerned.

Because of that, I don’t want to speculate on what I think happened and who I think was involved (although interestingly, Husband and I came up with the same question after we’d heard it all) but I think it is clear that, protestations of innocence aside, there were big problems with the way this was tried back in 2000. That’s the thread running through the series: should Syed have been convicted on the strength of the state’s case against him?

I won’t give an answer. I know what I think, and I’ve heard what experts think, thanks to Koenig, but if I told you, that really would spoil it. And now to get started on the next season…

Serial is a podcast from This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, presented by Sarah Koenig. 

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New York chronicles, part IX: the return

It’s now almost two full months since I’ve been home and I think I’ve finally gained enough distance to sit down and think about my time in the town they call New York. While I had an amazing time and wouldn’t trade it for anything, I was definitely ready to come back when I did. I’d been without Husband much longer than I wanted to be, and I was also starting to hit that point where I’d spent so much time alone that I was forgetting how to interact with humans on a basic level socially. This was through choice, I hasten to add. I did see a lot of my family, which was fantastic, but in order to do all the things I wanted to do and see all the things I wanted to see, I needed to be on my own.

What did I do and see, then? I went north into New York state on the train to Tarrytown, the home of Washington Irving and the Rockefellers. I went west into New Jersey where my family are. I went even further north into Pennsylvania for an utterly wonderful trip with Husband to a resort called Skytop, where we walked among the trees as they shifted from green to gold and fiery red. I travelled by bus to another town in Pennsylvania to visit a tungsten plant for work, which was rather less wonderful, but an interesting experience all the same. This was a town that once relied almost solely on the tungsten plant for employment, but was hard hit by the recession and still hasn’t really recovered.

I stumbled into nooks and crannies of the city that I wouldn’t have seen other than on foot. I drank in dive bars and luxurious cocktail lounges. I attended poetry readings and pretended I belonged in the East Village. I visited every museum I could think of. I wandered the financial district and saw Wall Street and the World Trade Center and Ground Zero. I took the ferry to Staten Island and back. I went to the top of Rockefeller Center, and iceskated at its foot. I iceskated in Central Park. I walked from one end of the park to the other, losing myself intentionally so that I could see as much of it as possible. I lived in an area of the city I’d never have dreamed of choosing, but I learned a lot and saw a lot because of it. I ate at Katz’s Deli. I consumed dozens of hotdogs and had huge breakfasts that filled me up for whole days. I went to the beach: the dusty, dirty beach at Coney Island and the clean, pristine beach at East Hampton. I went to the circus once and the theatre twice and saw a movie premiere (Miles Ahead, if you’re interested. It was a bit weird).

I experienced a New York summer with all its sweat and stink and beauty, and the beginning of a New York fall, where the heat lasts but the trees begin to turn to gold. I went to three zoos and two botanical gardens. I got lost in Prospect Park. I drank gallons and gallons of coffee of varying quality. I set foot in all five boroughs. I went to a rooftop party at a Brooklyn apartment and a rooftop gig at a Village hotel. I took thousands and thousands of pictures. I saw a lot of movies, some outside, some inside, and went to a lot of bookstores. I learned that New Yorkers are a lot like Londoners, but louder and often ruder. I learned that sounding one’s horn is a public pastime. I learned that the stereotypes are true: portion sizes are that big, and pharmaceutical commercials are that terrifying. I learned that the tube may be expensive and crowded and unreliable, but it’s a damn sight better than the subway, whose only virtue is value for money.

I learned it’s always, always, always best to know your route, or end up praying you can get a cab in the middle of the night in downtown Brooklyn. I learned you can buy a fedora at 11 o’clock at night if you’re in the right part of Williamsburg. I spent hours in hipster cafes, drinking coffee and writing. I tried pastrami. I got food poisoning in a fancy restaurant near Lincoln Center. I was told by three different strangers (all male) that “not everyone can pull off short hair”, but apparently, I can. I watched a lot of Jeopardy. I went to a book festival and heard Salman Rushdie speak (summary: he’s a genius but he’s kind of a dick). I met John Darnielle. I also met some great people at work, even if they weren’t as keen on going out for drinks as we Londoners are (!) and I learned how to deal with very, very noisy roommates again. I didn’t spend a single weekend in the house. I got asked for ID everywhere. I drank too much (you can get a surprisingly good bottle of red for $8) and spent too much money and went a little crazy, but I did it and I’m glad I did.

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