Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Notting Hill and Hollywood Values

What a grim day yesterday was! Blue Monday, apparently, and it lived up to its name here with a dark sky and periodic blizzards, which ‘got’ me more or less every time I was caught between places with no shelter. Umbrellas are useless in Edinburgh. I don’t even know why anyone stocks them in the shops. None could have survived yesterday’s crosswinds.

So, last night after 9pm, I was tired and fed up and in no mood to write or read and there was nothing worth watching on the TV, so I decided I would watch ITV2’s millionth repeat of Notting Hill, Roger Michell‘s 1999 movie starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, partly because I had never before actually watched it through to the end. Here was my chance and I took it with three small bottles of Stella Artois by my side to blunt the edge of the blizzard that made me feel cold even watching it churn the air beyond  the windows.

The plot of Notting Hill is simple. The most famous actress in the world, Anna, (Julia Roberts) goes into a travel bookshop and meets the proprietor, William (Hugh Grant). They fall in love and the movie progresses like any romcom: hurdles present themselves and are overcome, only for yet steeper hurdles to appear. Can an ordinary bloke like Hugh (sic!) and a huge celebrity like Julia find eternal happiness amid the PR personnel and paparazzi fighting for a piece of her? Well, there can only be one answer in a successful, feelgood, Hollywood movie, but that in itself asks difficult questions, which I will come to shortly.

The script is sharp and witty. Grant is his usual bumbling self, the engaging twit who always gets the girl. I found it astonishing that Anna could fall for him, let alone continue to want a relationship with him, but – as a guy – that’s probably how I’m supposed to feel. If she can fall for that twit, well, she could fall for anyone... Roberts delivers the comedy with perfect timing. She convincingly asserts her ordinariness by enjoying an evening over dinner with William’s eccentric family and by appearing in some scenes without any make-up. Or, perhaps, she is made up to look as if she isn’t wearing any make-up, especially when she’s hiding in William’s house from the journalists out for a scoop story, and she does succeed in looking quite average – at least until every time she smiles, which she does frequently. There’s no other smile like Julia Roberts’s smile.

I kept asking myself how much of herself Roberts was putting into the movie. Basically, she is playing someone like herself, the most famous actress in the world at the time. Round the family table, she confesses how she’d been through a series of terrible relationships, had been hounded by journalists reporting her every move, and had been on a strict diet for 10 years. This is Anna, not the real Julia Roberts, but we can apply the principles to many famous Hollywood stars. There’s a longing to be ordinary, contrasted with the fawning adulation she’s subjected to by William’s family all through the meal. They don’t even take her confession too seriously.

But how seriously are we, the audience supposed to take it? Hollywood does this all the time. It presents values to us that it in no way espouses and yet presents them as vital for an authentic life. The most famous quote from the movie comes from Roberts telling Grant, “After all... I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” But Hollywood cultivates the very opposite ideals. Actors are celebrities, untouchable, privileged, our age’s gods and goddesses. Their disastrous marriages and relationships are picked open in unsparing detail by gossip mags, often from material released by the actors’ own PR people. They advertise beauty products offering ordinary mortals the illusion of comparable, soft-focus beauty, images designed to widen the real gap.

At one point, Roberts says that there will come a time when she will age and her looks will go and Hollywood will dump her with as little conscience as it once celebrated her. I wonder how she felt while performing those lines. Was it just a professional job for her? Or did she sense acutely the disconnect between the values set forward by the film and the reality she was speaking into? How deep is the pool of celebrity depression and unhappiness? There is a fair chance that Julia Roberts would have thought critically about the dialogue she was acting. As it is, Roberts is now 45, still beautiful and still making movies and, it appears, happily married for 11 years - one of the lucky ones, perhaps. The film celebrates the value of love, the vitality of relationships and the emptiness of money without those things, while at the same time raking in $247,000,000 at the box office (from a mere $42,000,000 budget). Just as ‘You’ve Got Mail’ celebrated the small bookshop owner over the corporate chain and yet found time for product placement and grossed over $250,000,000 on commercial release, so the fantasy at the heart of Notting Hill plays on desire just like an average advertisement. We want it to be true, true in our lives, true in the way the world works. But Hollywood itself, with its emphasis on commercial success, big money, celebrity status (even dividing celebrities into A, B and C listers), doesn’t even remotely espouse the values of its own products. The message of Notting Hill is the exact opposite of the message Hollywood gives in the way it goes about more or less everything. 

It is a soul-less machine. The political equivalent would be David Cameron and Michael Gove telling us that that full equality is the aim, that love is the answer, that small is beautiful, and then carrying on with their current right-wing agenda. It’s just more entertaining when made into a movie like Notting Hill.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by poet and Magma secretary Jennifer Wong to give this interview for an expanding blog project called The Next Big Thing. You can read her interview here. The idea is to say something about the process of writing a forthcoming book or manuscript. I am supposed to post my thoughts and then tag other writers to do the same on 23 January 2013, although this date is flexible. I am a week late myself.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea emerged mainly from the process of writing it. In the second half of 2011, I placed all the better poems I’d written since my first collection (The Opposite of Cabbage, published in March 2009) side-by-side on the living room floor. I read them all, juggled them around, threw some away, and realised that most of those left were about happiness, the struggle for it and its accompanying discontentments. There was also a sequence on autism, but that seemed mainly to fall under the dominant ‘happiness’ theme. After that, I wrote more on-theme poems and a book, The Good News, was born.

What genre does your book fall under?

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
It will be co-directed by David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. Woody Allen will convert the disparate poems into a screenplay. For lead actors, I’ll resurrect Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo to star alongside Tom Waits and Helena Bonham-Carter. A choir of one hundred Scottish poets will act as a liturgical chorus. Amanda Palmer and Yo La Tengo will team up to provide the soundtrack. The Smiths will reform for one night only to play a brand new Morrissey/Marr track during the closing credits.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
That happiness comes from a deeper and stranger place than any ‘Ten Steps to Happiness’ self-help book or article will ever admit (one honourable exception is A Rough Guide to Happiness by Nick Baylis, which is a most thoughtful book).

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About three years, but many poems had been through countless drafts before they ended up in the manuscript. A ‘first draft’ of a poetry collection is often at quite an advanced stage, I’d guess.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
It’s quite a personal book, although it’s not ‘confessional’ poetry. My daughter was an inspiration, but these are not traditional ‘father-daughter’ poems. I have read poems about autism, some astonishingly brilliant (such as Les Murray’s remarkable It Allows a Portraitin Line Scan at Fifteen), but I haven’t read any that quite take the approach I do. And I was also inspired to write poems of place, political identity, faith, travel and love because these all felt important to me in regard to happiness. I wasn’t always in a particularly happy state of mind when writing the poems, but I was striving to touch on something hopeful, on a future with meaning attached.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I’d hope most of these poems will reward being read several times. They aim for that. They also aim to be humorous and entertaining without sacrificing depth and mystery. It’s a tall order.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The Good News will be published by Salt Publishing in the second quarter of 2013.


I asked several people if they wanted to be tagged to do this, but either they were already doing it or were too busy or couldn’t for other reasons. So I have only one person to tag and that is Helen Mort. Check out her blog around 23 January. I am now also going to tag Peter Daniels as well.

If anyone else wants to do it, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to tag you here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Christian Ward and Plagiarism

Plagiarism is wrong, I’m in no doubt about that. It is intellectual and (sometimes) emotional theft. It is wrong, but it is not anything like as wrong as, say, murder, rape, or even the fact that up to half of the food bought in Europe and the USA ends up in rubbish bins – that really is worthy of scandal.

Christian Ward’s plagiarism of poems by Helen Mort, Tim Dooley, Paisley Rekdal, Janice Soderling, and others (does anyone seriously think there won’t be others?) has been shared so many times on Facebook and so much has been said about it – much of it virulent and hysterical, in my opinion – that I feel unsure about saying more. It is good that the facts came out and that people’s original authorship has been recognised. Of course, for those directly involved, it is an important issue, and for publishers, Magazine editors, competition organisers and review editors etc, it may affect the reception of any future works by Mr Ward. That remains to be seen. Actions do have consequences.

But, if this had happened only a few years ago in a world before Facebook, the reaction would have been confined to a relatively small number of people, who might have thought CW an idiot and might have told him so, but it wouldn’t have gone any further. Plagiarism has been carried out by well known poets before, some who are still publishing poems today. Most folk have no idea that these poets have been guilty of plagiarism. But the reach of today’s social media has meant that news spreads instantly to a very large mob of people, and mobs, even (especially?) virtual mobs, tend to dispense instant justice in unfortunate ways. That certainly is what has happened over the last week.   

It is true that Christian Ward’s statements have not exactly helped his cause. He ought simply to have admitted his guilt over the poems he’s been accused of plagiarising and indeed brought others to light too. However, it’s easy enough for me to say that in the relative calm of my office here in Edinburgh. I don’t imagine that CW’s mind will be in fully rational mode. It’s hard to think straight when under considerable stress and you’re starring in the (national) press for all the wrong reasons. People who say it’s “great publicity” for him are living in a different planet. It is better publicity for those plagiarised, but I’d also bet that none of them are exactly thrilled about it and would much rather they’d been allowed to get on with writing poems without having their names and photos splattered all over the newspapers and social media sites.

I think it’s now time to end this social media circus performance for the sake of all concerned. We know what happened, we know it’s plagiarism (not a “mistake” or “accident”), the victims have had their say (which is certainly fair), so let’s move on to something more fruitful. Have I just added to the list of circus acts by writing this? I suppose I may have, but I post it in the spirit of an epilogue on the last page of a novel; the kind of epilogue that banishes the need for a sequel.

Cutting Food Waste

Ignore best-before dates, they indicate when the manufacturer thinks the product is best, not safe. Use-by dates are important particularly with meat.

I’ve no problem with this advice. It’s entirely sound.

Shop in small amounts and more frequently

That’s all very well if you have an unlimited amount of time, but I find doing a ‘weekly shop’ is by far the best use of time. Also, if I shop on a day-by-day basis, I somehow end up spending more. The issue is partly one of self-control, of course. Shopping with a weekly menu plan and accompanying list can save a great deal of potential wastage. It does make sense, particularly with regard to certain vegetables (e.g. mushrooms), fruit and bread, to buy these around the time you need them and to check use-by dates on meat, eggs etc (see above) to make sure they will last until you intend to use them.

Avoid ‘Buy One Get One Free’ products or only buy them if you can freeze the extra product

Well yes, I agree. However, the supermarkets rip off everyone who tries to beat the system. To give an example: a three-pack of peppers (usually one green, one red and one yellow, like traffic lights) costs around £1.20. Inevitably, you go into the supermarket one day and find the price has increased to £1.95. However, if you buy one, you’ll get one free. Alternatively, you might find that buying two will cost you £2.50. Either way it’s hard to resist taking the extra packet because you know you are paying well over the odds if you buy only one. It’s enraging, and the supermarkets are entirely to blame for the waste that results. People could say no, but I think it’s unfair to expect them always to do so, given the pricing policies.

Plan meals

This always feels like an effort. But, when I do it, I definitely waste very little food. It also takes a certain commitment to stick to the plan, especially if it involves more than sticking something in a microwave. Fresh ingredients always tastes better and costs less in the long run. Last week, I tried making chicken soup from scratch by boiling the remains of a roast chicken (which had covered two family meals in itself) for four hours along with a few garlic cloves, carrots and four celery sticks. I then strained it into an airtight container, chilled it in the fridge and boiled it up again the next day with vegetables and a little remaining chicken. The best soup I’ve ever tasted.

Use your freezer more

Again, this needs organisation. I often forget to take things out the freezer to defrost in time, which messes up the menu plan, but it should be possible to get this right with a little more commitment on my part.

Never buy salad in bags, it isn't good value and once opened it goes off quickly

I agree on principle. But if you buy all the ingredients separately, you will have a lot of stuff and it will cost quite a bit. You’ll do well actually to use it all unless you’re eating salad with every meal for days. The reason people buy bagged ready-made salads is because they come in manageable quantities. Buying separate ingredients to make salads could result in more, not less, waste. Perhaps supermarkets could sell individual salad ingredients for a good price in smaller quantities?