Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Plug of the Month

Unusually, my plug of this month is for a work of non-fiction. Slightly strange for a literary blog perhaps except that:
  • Once upon a time I did a Biology degree. I therefore have pretensions to being an environmentalist.
  • Hedgehogs formed a huge part of my childhood - my parents (particularly my Dad) would always put milk out, and then we'd listen to the snufflings of the little critters coming up the garden.
  • I now know, thanks to Hugh, that the milk malarkey is turble for poor little hedgehogs, but garden wilderness is a GOOD THING. We have a great patch at the end of the garden and our own resident ball of spikes. (At least we did have, but there was some roadkill last autumn that looked a bit familiar. I sincerely hope it was the neighbour's)
  • They are undeniably cute.
  • Thomas Hardy wrote a great poem mentioning hedgehogs,* so they are literary after all.
Anyway, anything endorsed by both Jeanette Winterson and Anne Widdecombe must have a lot going for it. And to be described by The Guardian as "endearingly batty" has a certain cachet, don't you think?

For anyone in Oxford, Hugh will be speaking at Science Oxford on Thursday 8th April at 7.30pm "How Hedgehogs Can Save the World".  I can guarantee he will be witty, enthusiastic and informative. But if you can't get to Oxford, the paperback is out tomorrow, easily ordered on Amazon etc. And do visit his website which is brilliant.

* First seen at Thomas Hardy's birthplace in Little Bockhampton, an apt epitaph for my Dad, an English teacher, who had recently died.

Friday, 26 March 2010

#Fridayflash - Safe & Sound

"Can I go to Lily's for a sleepover on Saturday?"
"No, you can't."
"Why not?" Petra's pulls her face in a pout that looks like a stuffed salmon. Her mother sighs.
"Because not."
"But everyone's going to be there."
"Everybody minus you."
"But WHY?"
"Because Dad's on lates, and I say so." Her mother doesn't add that Lily's parents cannot be trusted; that Lily and her friends wear clothes beyond their age; who knows what they get up to? No wonder she prefers Petra to be safely under her eye at home.
"It's not FAIR."
"Life's not fair sometimes. Haven't you got homework to do?"

Petra sighs in return and stomps upstairs to her bedroom. She opens her laptop and begins her history essay,"To what extent was Germany's defeat in World War 1 responsible for the rise of Hitler?" She looks up a few websites for information; weighs up pros and cons; ponders the nature of oppression and considers herself hard done by. At last, the essay reaches a state that will satisfy Mrs Blandings. She emails it across and  switches to her Facebook page. Suzy's latest update makes her grin.

Suzy wishes Year 10 teachers would stop going on about GSCE's.

Petra posts,

Petra has finished her history essay & wishes her parents weren't such control freaks.

Suzy must be on-line. Her response is almost immediate.

Mine too. Do you think they learn it at parent school?

Petra yawns, types back,

LOL. I'm tired. Off to bed now xxx

Just before she closes down, a final message appears,

Sleep well. Talk tomorrow.S xxxx

She smiles and exits.

A hundred miles away, Tony smiles back, as he sits in his bedsit, preparing updates for tomorrow.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

#FridayFlash - Good Mornings.

I find, as the years pass,  my morning routine becomes ever more essential to my well being. I dislike it when my mornings are disturbed.

I am not an early riser - the preservation of beauty requires at least eight hours a night - and I need a leisurely breakfast if I am to last the day. Not that I eat much - half a grapefruit, some quinoa and a glass of pepper juice - but I like to take my time. Then a stretch, and a  look in the Mirror. The 3am girls always reassure me I'm fairest. I've never known them to let me down.

After breakfast: a bath. And then to work. Age will not wither me, but the maintenance of youth takes effort. There are eyebrows to be plucked. Grey hairs to be excised. Body parts to be moisturised. Once a week: a visit to the salon, for bleaching, botoxing, lifting shadows from eyes. At home: an hour in the gym working on  core muscles. A model stomach cannot sag even a millimetre.

I lunch alone: a sliver of grilled chicken, a mouthful of salad. I rest a little, and then prepare for the night ahead. I manicure, coiffure, choose my wardrobe, with only Rosa to help. It does not do to have an audience. It is important to be seen when all imperfection has been eradicated. I like to dazzle.

So my days pass, as they have passed for  years. Until this morning. This morning was different. Disturbing. And now I will have to act.

I had a long lie in as usual, meditating on a delightful night out. Cocktails at the Ritz. A film premiere. A nice little model to play with in the small hours. His smooth body and hard muscles proving a welcome distraction whilst Marco is away. Everything as normal until I picked up the Mirror. It took one tiny article to shatter my routine completely.

"Down at the Blue Note Club dancing the night away we bump into the ravishing Bianca Nievicata, daughter of Fashion King, Marco Nievicata, and stepdaughter of the gorgeous Catherine. She tells us her father is developing a new line for her age group. “ I’m so excited!” she gushes before rushing back to the dance floor. Where does this leave step-mum Catherine we wonder? Is she about to be supplanted as the face of Nievicata? Having met Bianca we can’t say we blame her Dad. Catherine may be good for her age but on balance we have to say, that Bianca is far and away the fairest of them all.”

No mention of my turn on the red carpet. The new Nievicata creation I wore (a stunning little piece in purple velvet). Just Bianca's pouty red lips. Her silky black hair. Her paler than pale skin. How could they let me down like this? I'd ring their editor, but it would only make things worse. Marco dotes on that child. Naturally, so do I. It wouldn't do to have that myth exposed.

Marco hasn't dared mention his latest little scheme. He must have been worrying how I'd respond.  I will have to embrace it with enthusiasm. That should be easy enough - living with Marco has always required a certain amount of deception. I'll make suggestions about the launch: venues, celebrities, refreshments. I'll do all the grunt work, get the right publicity, make it go with a bang. Then, when they're reassured they have nothing to fear, I'll phone the Huntsman. He can take care of Bianca for me. As he has done so many times before.

The preservation of beauty takes considerable effort. It's well worth it - don't you think?

* A gossip column in the Mirror newspaper for the uninitiated.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Sublime Screenplay (3) - Finding Nemo

I promise one of these days to reflect on some of the brilliant British screenwriters out there, but Mother's Day reminded me of all the great children's films I love. So, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about one of my favourites. Pixar films are undoubtedly the geniuses of the modern age, worthy successors to Walt Disney's legacy. Whilst I love Toy Story (1) &; (2), A Bug's Life, The Incredibles, Wall:E , Up, none quite match Finding Nemo for its storytelling and humour. After all what's not to love about an unfunny Clown Fish, a forgetful Blue Tang, vegetarian sharks, surfer -dude turtles, the inhabitants of a fish tank trying to escape, greedy seagulls and grumpy crabs? Andrew Stanton's screenplay is brilliantly structured,  a worthy Oscar winner (Best Animated Feature 2004) and nominee (Best Original Screenplay 2004. It lost out to the much more inferior "Lost in Translation", which just goes to show how wrong the Academy can be). So here's my take on a film that makes me both cry and hoot with laughter, and which I love watching with my children and hope to enjoy with grandkids, should I ever have any...

1.The premise.

"Finding Nemo" tells the story of father and son clownfish, Marlon and Nemo. When Nemo is taken from the reef where they live, Marlon has to search the ocean to rescue him. A simple enough story, but Andrew Stanton is such a fine writer, it becomes something quite extraordinary - a masterclass in screenplay. Here's why.

2. Archetypal story-telling.

All good films follow archetypal stories. "Finding Nemo" has three.

The first, is the quest, specifically in this instance, for a loved one. Quest stories require a hero (Marlon), a sidekick (Dory), obstacles (sharks, jelly fish, whales), life lessons (from turtles and Dory) and a destination (Sydney).

The second is the prison break out. The hero here is Nemo. He is the outsider who will not settle to the system, unlike all the shop bought fish who are more content with their lot. He is the young rebel, aided by the old hand, the grizzled Gil, who has the brains and the wit to plot a way out. Prison break outs require complicated planning, solidarity, failure, and eventual success for the hero at least.

The thirds is rites of passage. Here Nemo has to learn to be who he is, and his father, has to learn to let him grow up.

Archetypal stories work best when they are familiar, in an unfamiliar setting. And what better way to do that then to set them in an underwater world amongst tropical fish?

 3. The protagonists.

There are two protagonists in the story. Marlon and Nemo. Like all good heroes, they have their flaws.
Marlon has lost his wife and 499 eggs to a shark attack. He is therefore over-protective of his only remaining child, and fearful about the world. He wants to keep Nemo safe for ever. But he needs to learn that he has to let Nemo go. Nemo on the other hand wants to be a good son and to fit in. He needs to learn he is more capable than he thinks and if he trusts in himself he can achieve anything.

The antagonists are various, the scuba-diving dentist that captures Nemo, the various sea creatures Marlon encounters, the dentist's niece, Darla, and the ocean itself.

4.  Structure

One of the reasons "Finding Nemo" is so successful is that it is beautifully paced. This is because it follows a clear 5 Act Structure.

Act 1 Set up & inciting incident

Act 1 introduces us to Marlon and Nemo, we see their flaws and their obvious love for each other. This builds up to the inciting incident - the moment for both characters when everything changes. This comes about 15 minutes in when Marlon realises Nemo's teacher has taken the class to the edge of the reef, where the shark killed their family. Marlon tells Nemo he has to come back with him, and in a rare moment of defiance, Nemo refuses. Instead he takes up his class mates dare, swimming out to touch a boat that's anchored some distance away. As he is coming back to face the music, a deep sea diver grabs him, leaving his father literally reeling on the reef. Now, Marlon will have to overcome his flaw, in order to rescue his son, and Nemo will have to overcome his, in order to escape.

Act 2 - Progress

The story now splits into two, following each of the characters in turn.
Marlon - Marlon recovers his breath and follows the boat, but he loses it. In a panic he asks different fish if they've seen it. No-one can help till he meets an excitable Blue Tang called Dory. She's seen the boat and he follows her, only for her to stop and ask what he's doing. It turns out she suffers from short term memory loss so, whilst she is keen to help, she's not necessarily the best person for the job. A memorable encounter with vegetarian sharks, brings them into contact with the scuba diver's lost mask. Dory is able to read it and remember the address. Now they know Nemo is in Sydney, they can find him.

Nemo - We catch up with Nemo as he is being placed in a fish tank. He doesn't know where he is and frantically tries to escape, hitting the sides of the tank till someone explains to him. When the tropical fish discover he's from the ocean they are a bit suspicious, at first, till Gil, the old hand, welcomes him into their midst and they ask him to join their club.

Act 3 - Progressive Complications

Marlon - Marlon and Dory's journey is fraught with danger. After escaping the vegetarian sharks and an explosion, they have to find directions to Sydney. Marlon manages to offend a school of fish by his grumpiness, but Dory persuades them to help. Their path takes them through a crevice, the fish warn not to go above it. Marlon thinks this is stupid and manages to trick Dory into forgetting. They go above and hit a mass of jelly fish. Now their journey is a terrifying bounce across the top of the jelly fish avoiding being stung, and Dory is nearly killed. They are rescued by sea turtles who swim with them along the East Australian Current. When they exit, the sea is so polluted they can't see anything, except, a huge threatening looking whale. How are they going to get to Sydney now?

Nemo - Meanwhile in the fish tank, Nemo discovers the scuba diver is a dentist, and the reason he has been caught is a present for his niece Darla,.  Darla is  a terrifying brat, who has killed her last pet. Gil hatches an escape plan. They need to block the tank filter, so the dentist will clean the tank, leaving the fish in plastic bags by the window. They'll roll off the edge, across the street and into the sea. The trouble is that Nemo will have to swim up a tiny tube with a pebble and if he fails he could be sucked back into the motor. The other fish are worried that it will be too dangerous and beg Gil not to go through with the plan. Nemo tries, but as he is leaving, he gets stuck and the pebble doesn't hold. The motor starts and he is being dragged back. The fish pull him out with a piece of weed, but he is weak and exhausted, and they agree it is too dangerous to try again.

Act 4 - Crisis

Marlon - Dory tells Marlon she can speak "whalese" and as a result they are taken up in the whale's mouth. Marlon is despairing trying to escape, and angry with her. Suddenly the water starts disappearing, and Dory says the whale wants them to let go and follow it. Marlon thinks this is madness, till he remembers last time he didn't follow Dory, he nearly got her killed. The moment he decides to literally "let go" is the moment he realises sometimes he has to trust things will work out. The result is that the whale shoots them out in its spout and they are at their destination, Sydney.

Nemo - The day of Darla's arrival is drawing near. Nemo is in despair. But then Nigel, a friendly pelican comes and tells Nemo all the ocean are talking about Marlon and Dory's search for Nemo. At first Nemo can't believe it, but when Nigel remembers his dad's name, it gives Nemo the courage to act. As the other fish watch in horror he shoots up the tunnel with the pebble, and escapes the other side. The fish tank becomes dirty. The escape plan is working

Act 5 - Resolution.

In Act 5 Marlon and Nemo's stories rejoin to create first  a false resolution and then the final proper resolution. Marlon and Dory meet Nigel who takes them to the dentist's studio. Meanwhile, the fish wake up to discover that the dentist has introduced a laser cleaner which has cleaned the tank. Darla arrives and Nemo is transferred to a bag for her. He plays dead in the hope he will be flushed down the toilet. When Nigel arrives with Marlon and Dory, Darla is distracted and chaos ensures, with the dentist chasing after the pelican, and Nemo being bobbed around. Marlon sees Nemo and thinks he is dead, the dentist chases Nigel away before he realises his mistake. Nemo's bag bursts and he manages to flip down a drain to the ocean.

Marlon thinks it is all over and abandons Dory, trying to make his sad way home. But Nemo is just behind. He meets Dory who is her usual helpful, but forgetful self. Just as we think she's not going to remember, something he says brings all the memories back, she rushes him to Marlon and they are reunited. Dory gets caught in a fishing net, and it is up to Nemo to rescue her. Marlon momentarily thinks Nemo can't but remembers just in time the lessons he has learnt, and Nemo is strong enough to say he can do this. He rescues the fish and Dory and they return to the reef. The film ends as it begins with Nemo going off to school, to "have an adventure."

6. Conclusion.

It's perfectly paced, it follows all the rules, it tells archetypal stories, which is half the battle. But that wouldn't be enough on it's own. The film works so well because of the wonderful mix of anthropomorphism and animation. The characters all look and behave like sea-creatures should, but they are believably human. Dory's enthusiasm and forgetfulness is such an exuberant combination make her immensely lovable. The moment when Marlon abandons her and she cries "But I remember better when I'm with you" is truly heartbreaking. The laidback sea turtles are chilled out beach bums surfing the currents of the world. My particular favourites are the sea gulls, that attack in formation, saying "mine, mine, mine" - a perfect mix of real animal behaviour and description of what they might in fact be saying. At the heart of is is a truthful father/son relationship that says everything parents need to know about letting their children grow up (and one of the reasons I cry through my laughter). The dialogue is cracking and the whole thing zips along with great humour, summarised by the brilliant post-script at the credits. The fish tank fish, have managed to make it to the pavement. They roll in their bags over to the edge of the sea. Success! They roll into the water. The last one makes it to great applause. Then someone says, "how do we get out of the bags?!

Sheer bloody genius.

Friday, 5 March 2010

#FridayFlash- Submission

This piece has taken longer than I expected to wrote and is probably deeply flawed as a result. It's inspired by the  wonderful interfaith work of Ray Gaston and Annie Heppenstall and a memorable trip, too many years ago...

The bus rattled along the bumpy road, through miles of brown rock and pink dust. It was not the image of desert I'd had in mind when Lee suggested the trip.  I knew it was irrational to feel disappointed when we reached the oasis on the outskirts of the town. But images of palm trees, shimmering water, camels and sand dunes were hard to shake off. Mud, a trickle of water, and scraggy trees were poor substitutes.

We struggled off the bus, sitting at the side of the road to check our Lonely Planet. A couple of hawkers drifted up, hopefully. We were old hands by now and brushed them away. They took their collections of purses and beaded necklaces down to the gate of big hotel,  lying in wait for the rich tourists. We were hot, thirsty, and our clothes were full of dust. Not for the first time, I wished we had money. How nice it would be to sink into clean sheets, an air conditioned room, and a swim in the cool pool. Our destination, as always, was the heart of the medina - a narrow terraced hotel, with a small bed, squat toilet,  a 50:50 chance of a shower.

I picked Lee up in a bank in Casablanca. We got chatting in the queue and it seemed natural to go for lunch afterwards. When we discovered we were both heading to Marrakech, it was the easiest thing in the world to join forces. A relief, too. I was getting tired of the incessant stream of men following me around. A man at my side was a talisman to ward off their advances.  As we journeyed south on the train, watching the green fields leach into stony mountains, it was pleasant to lean my head against his, sharing life stories.The night was clear; the moon, full. The landscape would have been dreary by day, but that evening the rocks and boulders sparkled like jewels as the shafts of light bounced between them.  It seemed to me, at that moment, that Lee was the greatest treasure of them all.

Three weeks later, and  Marrakech had lost its charm. There are only so many trips to the souk, so many snake charmers, so many bowls of couscous. Even sunset, at the top of the Cafe de France - as the lights of the city came on, one by one to the muezzin's call, - was passe. I didn't need much urging to make the Saharan trip, it was a journey I might not have made alone. Even though now we here, Lee had taken charge again, I reminded myself it would still be worth it for the sight of sunrise over the dunes.

The hotel was like all the rest, on a narrow side street off the main square. A plain reception desk with blue and white tiles behind. A morose man on the desk, who spoke only to Lee, as I tried, and failed, not feel excluded. Rooms off a central courtyard, that still retained the heat of the day, even after nightfall. We dragged our rucksacks up to the room and threw ourselves on the bed. It was good to stop  moving for a while.

We struck lucky on the shower front. Once we'd washed we were ready to descend and forage for food. As we crossed the courtyard, a woman emerged from a door at the back of the hotel. She was wearing a long purple dress., her head covered in a lilac hijab. She was carrying a bowl of couscous and tajine, which she took to the man on the desk. She spoke to him briefly and then scurried back, not looking at us as she passed.

"What a life." I said, as we walked down the street, trying not to wrinkle our noses at the smell of rotting rubbish.

"What do you mean?"

"Waiting on a man too lazy to get his own food.  Covering yourself up to avoid his censure. In the twenty first century too. So submissive."

"Seems alright to me." Lee joked. I nudged him in the ribs, and we continued on our way.

At bedtime we lay naked, on top of the bedclothes. It was too hot to make love. Outside the army trucks rumbled through the town. Occasionally we heard people shouting somewhere in the street.  I slept badly.


The Europeans arrived after prayer-time. Khadija and I were mopping the tiles in the courtyard. We watched them climb the stairs. They were tired and didn't see us.

"Look at her clothes " I cried, "She is practically naked!"
"That's what the Western girls wear," said Khadija, who'd grown up in the hotel and was used to their funny ways. "The mini trousers are called "shorts". Ther top, is a "T" shirt. They wear them to be cool."

This was odd. When I wanted to be cool, I wore loose clothing. In the middle of the day, I rested. I couldn't imagine why she wanted everyone to see her long tanned limbs, the curve of her breasts.

"How can her hair be so yellow?" I asked.

"Hair dye probably," I pulled a puzzled look, "Like henna. We colour our hands, they colour their hair."

How strange, I thought. But I was having to get used to strange things since my marriage to Bilal. Since leaving my village and living with his people. In a hotel, you see all sorts. Soldiers on leave from their garrisons. Guides preparing to take the tourists to the desert. Business men on their way to a conference in the resorts. Khadija  said we'd have our fair share of Europeans in the summer, but it was spring, and these two caught me unawares. I supposed I'd get used to their peculiarities, but it wouldn't be easy. I continued to wash the floor.

At supper time, I brought Bilal his evening meal. When his Father is away, he's the only one able to manage the front desk. He can read, write, speak French, do Arithmetic. Sometimes he is there for hours on end. Bringing him food is all I can do to help.Bilal said the man had tried to bargain for a cheaper room. How dare he? We offer the best prices in town. Everyone knows. That's why the foreigners come, because we're cheap and safe. Yet, here was this ignorant fool acting like he was in the souk. We shrugged at the mysterious ways of Westerners and I made my way back across the courtyard.  I did not  meet the their eyes, but I was aware of the woman looking at me with distaste.  I marvelled at her  ignorance.

Later, in bed, I asked Bilal, "Why does she wear such clothes?"

"Who knows? Perhaps, she thinks it brings her strength."

What strength? I wondered. It seemed to me that she was lost, in need of guidance. But I had no idea how I could offer her that. We didn't even speak the same language. Presently, Bilal drew me to him, and we forgot the strangers upstairs. It was a hot night, but I slept well.

We woke as usual to the muezzin's call. We rose, prayed, and went about our daily business - Bilal to the front desk, Khadija and I to the cleaning. I am lucky to live here with my husband, who I love, a family that welcomes me. Bilal's parents treat me like their daughter; Khadija is my soul-sister; and he is so tender, so kind. Sometimes he suggests I should abandon my hijab, like a modern Moroccan. But that's because he studied in Casablanca for a while, and was caught by city ways. I am happy to cover up, I say,  to submit to Allah's will. It is fitting not to parade my beauty in public. The avoidance of vanity seems to me the true  practice of islam. He tries to argue, and then, seeing my determination, laughs and kisses me instead. Truly, I have all the luck.

I am not so sure of this European woman. Yesterday  she and her friend rose late. They asked Bilal  about hiring a grand taxis to go to the desert and he directed them to Ibrahim. They packed their bags and departed, we thought for good. But  a few hours later, they returned, red-faced and stiff with each other, checking in for another night. Khadija and I heard shouting from their room, but we couldn't understand the words. Bilal said it seemed to be about money, but that was all the English he knew. They left again this morning. Yusuf told us that  he saw them take the bus back to Marrakech, they seemed to be barely speaking. Khadija and I still wonder what they were arguing about.

Later, when I cleared the room, I found a bottle marked "Garnier Nutrisse. Light Ash Blonde."

The words meant nothing to me. I threw it away.

Copyright c Virginia Moffatt, March 2010