A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Friday, December 23, 2011


"I'm so lonely."

"Is that all?"

He lifted his head and stared at her incredulously. He had not expected that.

"Everyone is lonely, dear," she explained, drawing him close to her. "We touch other people only briefly, then we're alone again. You'll get used to it in time."

- David Eddings, Castle of Wizardry

Shyness is probably my fatal flaw. That and some kind of awkwardness or something. I feel like an alien sometimes, going about in comedy sitcom fashion, trying to work out the rules that are obvious to everyone else. It feels like everyone else falls into being friends with each other so easily, but this alien's still looking for the rulebook on how to make friends.

I was at a party tonight, and although I know and like a lot of people who were there, I found myself wishing that my boyfriend were with me... which is, you know, normal. I wanted him to meet the people that I know and like, and maybe have a picture taken and...

Make me feel special.

I sometimes feel like I wander through life not leaving a mark, like people forget me when I'm not there, like I could walk in snow and not leave a footprint... and I felt a little like I was drifting. Not ignored exactly, but a bit inconsequential. Of course I wanted my boyfriend there because I like him and enjoy spending time with him, but I realised I also just wanted to be part of a team, a cog in a machine not just a bit of useless decorative detail on the casing...

So lonely...

I want to matter, is that so wrong?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stories, and why life and stories are different

I've been thinking a lot lately about stories - chiefly how stories are often different from real life. Of course, there are the obvious things - in stories there are things like wizards, unicorns, hobbits, robots that can think for themselves and so on, whereas these things are unlikely to occur in everyday life. And there's that mysterious Dickensian thing where the characters are all mysteriously related (for example, in an entirely unnecessary twist, in Great Expectations it turns out unbeknownst to Pip, he has actually met Estella's real parents. This doesn't help anyone - Estella never finds out who they are - but it does provide a bit of pathos when Estella's real father dies, and Pip is able to tell him that he loves Estella and she is safe).

I've been reading Dear Fatty - Dawn French's memoirs - and also writing a story that is meant to be narrated by an old woman, relating stories from her childhood. So I've rather wondered how memories work, and it has occurred to me that my old woman probably doesn't remember her childhood as clearly as she makes out. I've come up with several theories, therefore, as to how she is constructing her tale - possibly she kept a diary, or perhaps is reconstructing the story using her memories as the bare bones of narrative.

I've taken up playing the ukulele and am trying to write songs. I've got two so far, one which is a love song and one about Rosalind Franklin. And I thought, what better subject for a song, than a story from my own life?

Then I tried to think of a story.

Mark Twain once said, "The truth is stranger than fiction because the truth doesn't have to be consistent." That sounds about right. As I ploughed through my memories looking for something song-worthy, I found that my life simply does not behave itself in a story-like fashion. For instance, I thought of holidays I'd been on (I can still recall our last summer...) - but they weren't really stories, just patchy accounts of places I'd been and people I'd chatted to. All interesting enough in their way, but not enough for a song. Or I thought of friends that I'd known - trying to remember how we met... sometimes I couldn't remember, or it was alarmingly prosaic, something like having a mutual friend at school. There's no story-line to it - just a montage, really, of memories - places, jokes, songs, feeling extremely serious as we sat singing along to Simon and Garfunkel.

Stories have a wonderful way of making sense. One of the things I've noticed in the story I'm writing is how easy it is to tie everything together. Nearly everything has a purpose - it can be foreshadowing, or irony, or metaphor, or pathetic fallacy... Things are appropriate somehow, and even when something in a story is inappropriate, it's usually for a reason. It wouldn't just be irrelevant.

Whereas a lot of life is well, irrelevant. In a story, your character might be going to confront an enemy, and the air is hot and humid, as if before a storm. Both pathetic fallacy and foreshadowing. In real life, you probably wouldn't remember what the weather was like, and chances are it was probably moderate to fair. In a story, your character says, "no, you guys go ahead, I'd like to get some air" and then is attacked by evil monster the moment the party's back is turned. In real life, character gets some air and wanders along later.

It frustrated me, thinking about this, because it made me wonder why we like stories - why are stories written, read and told if they are not really like life at all? I guess in some sense stories are like a thread (a yarn, if you will! :) ) whereas life is more like the cloth or the tapestry. I think of people I've known and places I've been and experiences I've had, and of course they've had the elements of things in stories - after all, stories must be at least a little inspired by life - but the tales haven't ended properly - loose ends not tied up - characters leave without explanation, and a lot of the time, the people who are important in some ways but barely feature. It's embarrassing how many people I feel very grateful to but now am hardly ever in touch with, for no reason better than being busy and not getting around to e-mailing.

On reflection, I've just realised it might be a good thing that I've randomly not quite but nearly lost touch with people. I mean, look at the History Boys - one teacher is the most eccentric and probably the most important to the boys... or look at Pay It Forward - one kid changes the lives of lots of people, some of whom he doesn't know. Or take The Bridge to Terebithia, My Girl, Fried Green Tomatoes, Beaches, Goodnight Mr Tom, or, well, lots of others. In all of these stories, there is a character who is very important, has a role to play in shaping another character's life, and then DIES.

Yes, DIES.

To be fair, this has happened to at least one important person in my life, but our relationship wasn't really film-worthy. There were no life-changing moments, even though it did change my life; nothing that would warrant a weepy with Oscar winning actors and Bette blooming Midler. That person's death did make me really sad - obviously - but there was no real Wind Beneath My Wings moment, thank blooming goodness. His death was not in a delicious twist of irony or in a devastatingly meaningless tragedy, only the sort of sad, horrible thing that happens sometimes. It was, in a sense, meaningless, but not in a melodramatic, end of a movie sort of way. His life didn't end like a story. It just ended like a life.

I think stories are there to make a certain sense of life... to track all those individual strands that are woven in varied directions and tie them up into one long yarn instead. I guess we do need to realise that life is not a story and often doesn't bother to make any narrative sense - but that doesn't mean that stories can't help us find meaning.

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Obscure Reviews Inc: Favourite Fairy Tales Part 2

Thus continues my review of Favourite Fairy Tales translated and adapted by Susanna Noel. You can read Part 1 here.

Trigger warning: Noel apparently doesn't pull her punches, and I discuss whether Little Donkey Skin is suitable for children, as child abuse is hinted at.

The next story in this compilation is Puss in Boots. This begins with a miller who has a mill, a donkey, and a cat, and when he dies, each of his three sons inherits one of these. The youngest son gets the cat and is a bit upset about this.

'My brothers have the chance to earn their living honestly... but as for me, once I have eaten the cat and made myself a coat out of its fur, I will go cold and hungry.' The cat, hearing these words, said to him in a serious tone of voice (for he didn't at all fancy being made into a fur coat):

'Don't upset yourself, master! Just give me a sack, and make me a pair of boots so that I can get through the undergrowth, and you will see that you have not been done so badly to after all.'
To my great disappointment, the miller's son does not respond, "OMG a talking cat !!!111111!!" and then do the sensible thing and take the cat to the circus. But I don't mind that much, nor do I mind that the rather capable cat does not immediately take off for the city and earn his fortune (possibly employing Dick Whittington as his agent). For I must confess, this is a story I really like.

It is, really, a sort of cross-cast Cinderella with a cat instead of a fairy godmother. This innovation is excellent in many respects. Firstly, as we've already seen, and will continue to see, fairy godmothers are rubbish. They make you sleep a hundred years, they don't turn up when you're enslaved in your own home, and they can't do much when your dad wants to make you marry him (see later in this entry for that particular tale...). Secondly, the fairy godmother has magic, which doesn't work as well as it ought to and means you have to leave parties early, whereas cats have cunning, which works as well as it reasonably can. This means that the miller's son's inevitable riches, whilst perhaps not deserved in the traditional meaning of the term, are at least won for him in a satisfying manner, rather than with the wave of a magic wand and a convenient Deus Ex Machina. Thirdly, cats are cute and make excellent loveable scoundrels, and I certainly love a good loveable scoundrel, particularly if I can also tickle him behind his ears...

One minor peeve about this retelling - Puss in Boots claims his master is called "The Marquis of Caracas", which is weird when every child and Neil Gaiman fan knows he is the "Marquis of Carabas" or the "Marquis de Carabas" if you like. But no matter. The eponymous Puss catches rabbits and partridges and presents them as gifts to the king, claiming they are from the Marquis of Caracas. The king is most impressed and mystified (I suspect kings are meant to know the noblemen of their country, but like most fairy tales, I would suggest suspending your disbelief. I mean, it's got a talking cat in it for heaven's sake...).

One day, Puss hears that the king will be driving along the river bank with his beautiful (of course!) daughter, so Puss has a cunning plan. He tells the miller's son to go and bathe in the river on that day. When the king rides past, he shouts, 'Help! Help! My master the Marquis of Caracas is drowning!" The king's men 'rescue' the young 'marquis' and Puss tells them that not only was he drowning, but someone stole his clothes. The king immediately orders his gentlemen of the wardrobe to get the marquis some clothes. I can't help but smile at the passage that follows...

Once dressed in the splendid robes, the young marquis really did look very handsome, and the king was quite taken with him.
I am disappointed that alas it's not that sort of fairy tale, for the king's beautiful daughter is very taken with him, and after one or two tender glances falls madly in love with him. Yeah, we've already established that when royalty fall in love, they do so fast and hard.

The cat realises it's all working out, and phase 2 of the plan goes into action. The cat blackmails some peasants tilling fields and harvesting corn to say that the fields belong to the Marquis of Caracas, or else he would cut them into little pieces. Peasants apparently scare easily and these immediately comply. The king and the marquis and the daughter all come by in a carriage and and all the peasants say that the fields belong to the Marquis of Caracas, and Puss runs ahead, blackmailing more peasants until eventually he comes to a castle. This castle is owned by an ogre (thankfully without daughters) and the ogre really owns all the land in the area. Yes, the ogre owns all the land in the area and yet peasants are terrified of, and take orders from, cats.

The ogre can turn into many different animals. So guess what? Puss dares him to turn into a mouse... and he does... and Puss gobbles him up.

So the Marquis takes the castle, and the land, and also the daughter. He didn't deserve it, of course, but cats don't tend to mind that sort of thing.

I wonder, actually, why this doesn't bother me as much as Cinderella does? I think it might be partly that the miller's son is never really intended to be the main character. The story teller doesn't think that the drippy passive marquis is as important as the clever, suave, and furry individual who has all the tricks. Puss-in-Boots is an appealing character... he's both adorable and debonair. Also the romance isn't the focus of the story, which is good because most fairy tale romances are rubbish and this one is no exception.

Now, after that pleasant interlude, we come to Little Donkey Skin. This isn't the most well-known story, but it is one I have a passing familiarity with. I read two versions as a child, one of which I adored and one that squicked me out. Guess which version Noel picks?

Fairy tales, as I think we've established, are not nice. And Little Donkey Skin... Well. In this tale a beautiful queen is dying, and she chokes out one final wish...

In the version I adored, she tells the king that their daughter must not marry a man unless he is dying with love for her. Awww. But unfortunately it gets about and an unscrupulous knight fakes illness and claims it is because he loves the princess so...

But I suspect this was the cleaned-up version for children (fairy tales, as we have also established, possibly aren't suitable for children).

Noel does not waste her time with such petty nonsenses, certainly.
The queen, on her deathbed, said her weeping husband:
'Before I die, I have one last thing to ask you. Please get married again! ...You need an heir, a son who can take the throne when you die; so you must find another wife. But one thing I would like you to promise me, if you really love me. Don't marry unless you can find a princesss who is more beautiful than I am!'
The king has a beautiful daughter, but this is the olden days, and she cannot inherit the throne. The noblemen remind the king that he must marry, and beauty was not important provided that a queen was virtuous and produced heirs to the throne. If the princess marries, she will marry a prince from another kingdom... Even if her husband chose to remain and rule with her, their children would be of his blood, and the neighbouring kingdoms might use this an excuse to start wars against them. So the king must marry, but the late queen, being good, was incredibly beautiful. No one can compare... except....

His daughter.

He began to realise more and more that his daughter was the only girl in the land who was more lovely than her mother had been. Her freshness and youth filled the king with such a violent love that he could not hide it from the princess and told her that she was his choice for a second wife, since she was the only woman who could release him from her promise. The young princess... threw herself at her father's feet and begged him not to make her commit such a terrible crime.
Now that's dark, creepy and not a little Freudian. In an extra, rather devious twist, the head priest is said to have sacrificed the innocence of the king's daughter by telling her that it would not be a crime for the king to marry his own daughter. The king follows up by giving orders for the princess to obey him.

I'm really intrigued by this rather dark tale, and why precisely Noel included it. In all honesty, I think it is good for children to read stories with 'the good ended happily, the bad ended unhappily', and stories with monsters defeated, stories with peril, and death even, because at the end of the day, children need both the acknowledgement that bad things exist and the reassurance that good people win but...

Well, there are plenty of children who already know that child abuse exists. Really, it's a common theme in fairy tales (we've already seen children enslaved and children abandoned), but I think this is the only story I know that contains what is tantamount to sexual abuse. Could it actually be a good thing that this story, squicky as it is, exists - precisely because it acknowledges the severe wrongness of the relationship, something paedophiles are keen to cover up? Noel's king is powerful and domineering, and even has the church on his side. He overrides the princess's consent and tries to make his actions appear wholesome and normal.

So far, so gritty, and this is probably the grimmest basis for a Cinderella type plot that I know. The princess sets off that night to see her fairy godmother (in a carriage drawn by a large sheep who knew the way to Fairyland) and the fairy godmother, who is called Lilac, tells her she already knows about the king's plans, but not to worry.
'My dear child,' she said, 'it would be a great sin to marry your father; but you can escape doing so without angering him if you do as I tell you. Go and ask your father for a dress the colour of the sky. I'm quite sure he won't be able to find anyone who can make one for him.'
This bothers me, because I can well see why the princess wouldn't want to anger him, but this is truly the most pathetic and useless bit of advice ever given... and guess what, it doesn't work. The king is delighted by this ray of hope because the princess says she will only marry him if he makes the dress.... but before she'd told him she wouldn't marry him at all. Stupid Lilac. The dress, by the way, is ready in two days, and the sky when it is filled with golden clouds could not be more beautiful. The princess goes to Lilac again who suggests trying for the colour of the moon this time. Stupid Lilac, this dress is even nicer and takes half the time.
The fairy, Lilac, who knew everything, came to the aid of the princess and said, 'If I'm not greatly mistaken, you will finally outwit your father if you ask him for a dress the colour of the sun, because he will never be able to find anyone who can do that.'
I'm actually wondering if comedy was Noel's deliberate approach here, because Lilac definitely is greatly mistaken. Like all fairy godmothers, she is useless in the face of real problems, and instead proposes dressmaking challenges like she's on Project Runway or something. And the sun dress is so dazzling that all the tailors who worked on it had to close their eyes for fear of being blinded.

Lilac, to her credit, is, more ashamed at the failure of her plan than she cared to admit, and finally suggests a terrible test - asking for the skin of the donkey that the king loves so dearly.

I must add, at this point, that the donkey is magical and produces money... the king's perversions don't stretch that far...

The king complies right away. Stupid, stupid Lilac! She finally advises our heroine to run away, wrapped in the donkey skin, and arranges for her clothes to follow her in a chest underground... She lends the princess her wand so that the chest will appear whenever she needs it.

What was I saying about fairy godmothers? Lilac must be the most useless I know of, certainly; her goddaughter is on the run and the best she can do is come up with some kind of portable luggage system. How about a disguise? And somewhere to stay? I must repeat that magic is useless. The princess should have kept a cat.

The princess sets out in her donkey skin. I am not sure why this proved such a great disguise, because the king knows that she has it, but in any case it proves effective and she travels far and wide, scorned by all because of her revolting appearance, and she ends up with a job as a farm labourer. She excels at this, but one day catches sight of her own appearance and is deeply ashamed, so the next day in private she cleans up and puts on her sky dress, and feels a lot better. She decides to do this every Sunday from now on.

However, one Sunday a prince happens to pass by, and stops for a meal at the farm. He walks around the farmhouse, and peers through the key hole of a closed door, only to see the princess, dressed in her sundress. He (guess what) falls deeply in love with her, but when he asks who the room belongs to, he is told that it is only little Donkey-Skin, whom nobody ever really talks to.

The prince becomes ill with love, but cannot tell his parents why. Eventually, after being entreated to tell them what is wrong, he asks that Donkey-Skin bake him a cake.

As it happens the princess had seen him peering through the keyhole and watched him ride off, and the memory of him made her sigh with longing. So she cleans up, makes a cake from the best ingredients, but drops her ring into the mixture. (Food hygiene note - remove jewellery before baking). The prince find the ring, which would only fit the slenderest finger in the world. Is this seeming eerily familiar yet?

Girls come from far and wide to try on the ring, but it does not fit them. Finally, the prince, who is actually quite endearingly shy for a fairy tale prince, took his courage in both hands, and asked: 'Has the girl who baked me such a fine cake the other day tried on the ring?' They all laugh because she is so dirty and ugly, but the king insists that she be brought to the palace, and she comes in her donkey skin, but wearing a silver blouse and skirt underneath.

After the ring fits, she lets the skin slip, and reveals how ravishingly lovely she actually is, and the prince feeble though he was, threw himself at her feet and kissed them. It is then that Lilac deigns to appear, descending in a chariot, to tell the king and queen her sad little life story, and they are all pleased to hear she is a real princess, and the prince's love for her increased a thousandfold, which I hope is due to her fortitude and not her royal birth.

The ending, however, bothers me. The princess insists that her father give consent for her to marry, and has a wedding invitation sent to him. He arrives with his new wife, who had not been able to have a child of her own, and moreover her father kissed her tenderly. I think it is meant to show that the princess is no longer scared and has no reason to be scared of her father, both because he has been able to marry another and because she is marrying another... And this is good, because we don't want our heroine to be haunted by her experience forever more. But in all honesty, this ending is much too good for him. I would like him to wither to a pile of dust at her feet and be lost to the four winds.

There are two more tales for our examination, and I hope you don't mind if I squeeze them in here. The penultimate story is called The Fairies, and features a widow who has two daughters. The widow and her eldest daughter are both disagreeable and haughty but the younger daughter is one of the most beautiful girls you have ever seen. The widow prefers her older daughter since people naturally like people who look like them, but makes the younger daughter do all the work, and I don't know why she didn't just rename the poor kid Cinderella and be done with it.

One day, Cinders the younger daughter is fetching water, and an old woman asks if she can have some water from the young girl's jug. The girl is very kind and finds the coolest water, and helps the old woman to drink it.
When she had had enough, the old lady said: 'You are so beautiful and good and so honest that I cannot resist giving you a special gift,' (for the old lady was a fairy who had disguised herself as an old village woman to test the goodness of the younger daughter). 'The gift I bestow on you,' continued the fairy, 'is that every word you utter will come out of your mouth either as a flower or as a precious stone.'
The advantages of such a gift being that she always has a source of wealth, she could get a career in floristry, and people would hang on her every word. The disadvantages being that she's now very open to exploitation, and also that might be a choking hazard.

The mother is amazed by this new gift, and even calls the girl "my daughter" for the first time. After hearing what had happened, and being treated to a cascade of diamonds, the greedy mother then sends the older daughter, whose name is Fenella, out to get water from the same spot. Fenella goes, fuming, and, as she is collecting the water, she sees a magnificently-dressed woman coming towards her out of the forest.
It was the same fairy who had appeared to her sister, but this time she chose to take on the airs and graces of a princess in order to test how far the older sister's courtesy went.
I find this an interesting twist. It's a given that the fairy could not use the same disguise, as the older sister would expect that, but I am not sure of Noel's, or indeed the original author's, intent for this change of disguise. Is the magnificently-dressed woman meant to impress the sister, making it more likely that she would offer her water, therefore damning her more if she does not? Or is this meant to be a harder test - we are all taught to look after an elderly person in need, but we tend to think that ostensibly young and able people should be able to fetch their own water. Or perhaps, this being a fairy tale, is Noel actually implying that a princess is more worthy of water than an old woman?

In any case, unsurprisingly Fenella fails the test, replying haughtily that she should get her own drinking water, and the fairy responds in kind.
'Well, well, since you're so disobliging, I'll give you the following gift: every time you say a word, either a snake or a toad will fall out of your mouth!'
The advantages of this gift are that you can scare away attackers, and you can get a job in a circus. The disadvantages are that it's really nasty.

The mother is upset by this turn of events, but blames the younger daughter. She rushes at her with a broom, so the daughter runs out of the house, and into the forest. The king's son comes by, and asks her what is wrong. As she is explaining, she produces a stream of jewels, and the king's son, who had fallen in love with her at first sight, decided that this gift made her even more valuable, and led her to his father's palace, where in due course they were married.

Well colour me unsurprised, I couldn't have seen that ending coming. Fenella, on the other hand, becomes hateful and the unfortunate girl, after walking for many days without finding anyone to take her in, went into a corner of the forest to die.

Moral of the story: don't be rude to strangers. Ever.

In all honesty, this story seems like a bit of a waste. Can you honesty live happily ever after knowing your prince married you because you have jewels that come out of your mouth? Is refusing to give a princess a drink of water really enough to damn someone forever? I really think this tale could form the basis of a longer story, in which Fenella earns her redemption and Cinders her younger sister learns to deal with her new strange gift. Any budding novelists out there? Also anyone betting this is what I'm going to write next time I have a free minute?

Finally, the anthology reaches Little Red Riding Hood. It is unique in this entry in that it is not a reworking of Cinderella in any way. In fact, it is, as you probably know, about a little girl who lives with her mother and wears a red cape and hood. One day, Red's grandmother is ill and her mother sends her off with a cake and a little pot of butter. I am not sure why Noel needed to include the butter, but to bite a bit of butter makes you bright and better, berhaps. Ahem, perhaps.

On her way, she meets a wolf, who would dearly have loved to gobble her up, but he didn't dare to because there were woodcutters nearby. I once heard that Little Red Riding Hood is really all about sex, and how innocent young women need to be on their guard against dodgy men. If so, I am not sure where grandmother comes in.

Red is a friendly sort, and tells the wolf exactly where she is going, and why.

Oh wait, I've just had another idea - Little Red on the Net! Red is browsing online and shares her details with a charming young man her own age only to discover he's actually a wolf who wants to eat her. Same message but for our modern age.
The wolf set off as fast as his legs could carry him on the path that was the shortest route, and the little girl walked along the longest path, amusing herself by gathering nuts, chasing after butterflies, and picking bunches of pretty wild flowers.
What a girl. And what a time waster. Bet that butter melts all over the cake.

All right, I'm bored now and this 'review' has turned into one of those mammouth English essays. You'll be pleased to hear the story unfolds as usual, but there is one odd thing, given the rest of the book - the wolf does not eat Grandma. In fact, striking a blow for both realism and age-appropriateness, instead of the woodcutter cutting the wolf in half and rescuing her from his belly (a gory but satisfying touch) instead Grandma is hidden in the cupboard and escapes later, thus ensuring her survival without any surrealist touches.

So, in conclusion, Favourite Fairy Tales is a deeply disturbing book. The pictures don't help, either, as the heroines invariably look like dolls and creepy dolls at that. The stories all emphasise beauty before all, and have a very twisted sense of age-appropriateness that doesn't seem to be at all consistent. Did I enjoy it? Of course I did, although I enjoyed writing this more. Would I recommend it? My parents have a copy, if anyone's interested.

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Obscure Reviews Inc: Favourite Fairy Tales Part 1

I like reviews. And recently I have read a book I doubt anyone reading this blog will ever be able to read (my parents have a copy, if anyone's interested, though). Thus I must warn you that this review contains spoilers, and is written mainly for my amusement.

My parents, being grandparents to two (three in October) have a stash of books and toys in the spare room. Since I'm sleeping there this weekend (it used to be my room after all), I've perused the book cases for my amusement, and since I possess a certain fondness for folk tales, decided to read "Favourite Fairy Tales" which was translated and adapted by Susanna Noel (it doesn't say from what) and illustrated by Paul Durand.

The Fairy Tales in question are The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Tom Thumb, Puss in Boots, Little Donkey Skin, The Fairies and Little Red Riding Hood. And I read them all, except for Tom Thumb which I scanned because it was a bit too gory for me.

Sleeping Beauty is rendered mostly after the traditional style. There are a king and queen who struggle to have children for years and eventually have a daughter. This seems a fairly usual conceit of Sleeping Beauty and yet I'm not sure why it's necessary, given it has no bearing on what follows. Perhaps it's necessary for the daughter to be the heir, but, still, I am baffled.

There is also the "uninvited fairy" plot device - Noel emphasises that her lack of invitation was through an error, as the king believed her to be dead or cast under a spell (she is described as an "old fairy" which seems odd, I didn't think fairies were meant to age). The fairies all give gifts. I've always thought that the sort of gifts fairies give are profoundly ridiculous and these contain some gems. For example, the first fairy said that she would be the most beautiful baby in all the world, which seems rather pointless. In fact, I wonder if it was a cop-out because all mothers believe their babies are the most beautiful in the world. The second says she will have the spirit of an angel - I'm not entirely sure what that would entail - and whilst the third says her every action would be filled with grace, the fourth says she will dance beautifully, which seems like a given, if she's already very graceful. The fifth says she would have the voice of a nightingale, which is patently ridiculous, and finally the sixth says she would be able to play every kind of musical instrument, which for my money is probably the only decent gift of the bunch.

The old fairy then curses her with pricking her finger on a needle and dying. Yes, a needle. This is a bit bizarre, given the rest of the book - this entirely pointless dumbing down of the original tale. Later, when the young princess meets an old woman it says she is "sewing with a spindle". Very odd.

The end, unfortunately, does no real job of improving the original - rather boringly the princess falls in love with the prince at first sight.

Trembling, he went up to the bed and knelt beside it, and kissed her cheek. The princess stretched her arms, opened her eyes and smiled at him, her eyes tender with love.

'Is it you, my prince?' she asked
Enchanted by her words, the young prince declared his love for her and asked her to be his wife.

Which is just the sort of fairy tale rubbish I hate. I've always much preferred the stories where the heroine has to climb up glass mountains in iron shoes.

So the next story of our Favourite Fairy Tales is Cinderella. Another well-known fairy tale that's been turned into a much-loved Disney movie. There is a nobleman, who marries again, and the second wife has two ugly daughters. My mother used to tell me that the ugly sisters were really just ugly inside, but Noel's version makes short work of that presumption - their ugliness is mentioned repeatedly, and there is also a definite hint that they are fat too.

The sisters had not eaten for nearly three days so that they would be able to fit into their ball dresses, and even then Cinderella had to lace them into their corsets by pulling on the bedposts.
I'm not sure how that's meant to work, or why the sisters couldn't get dresses in their own size. Or, in fact, why given this little detail, they look very ordinary in the pictures. Perhaps that's the magic of corsets.

Cinderella's father is still alive in this version, but it is mentioned that he would have only scolded her anyway because he was entirely under her stepmother's thumb. Sigh, those women.

Cinderella watches the sisters go. She sits down and cries, when suddenly her beautiful fairy godmother appeared! Did I mention this book loves beauty? It's really no wonder Beauty and the Beast wasn't featured, the idea of good people not being beautiful hasn't occurred to Noel. It bothers me in this version, as it bothers me in every version of Cinderella, that the godmother only appears at this point. Gee, you'd think being starved in a garret and made a servant in your own home might warrant a bit of magical aid, but no, it's only when a party comes up that she feels she should pop in. To quote York University's PantSoc Cinderella, "You can give me a makeover but you can't solve any of my real problems? Have you ever considered a career in daytime television?"

So yes, the fairy godmother proceeds as per usual, giving Cinders all the lovely things and entreating her to be back by midnight. Cinders arrives at the ball and her beauty stops everything.

As they entered the violins stopped playing, the dancing came to a halt and everybody stopped talking, as they all stared in wonder at the beauty of this unknown princess! A murmur went through the crowd, 'Oh how lovely she is!' 'Did you ever see anyone so beautiful?' Even the king himself, old as he was, could not take his eyes off her and whispered to the queen, 'It's been years and years since I've seen anyone so pretty!'
Yeah, ok, we get it. I'm sure the queen is old enough and mature enough to not be irrationally jealous by this, but I sort of hope that the king followed this up with "Why, she's almost as beautiful as you" or similar. Chivalry's not dead, is it?

The prince, obviously, falls in love with her at first sight, and sits next to her in the banquet, passing her sweetmeats, which she, with admirable daring, passes on to her step-sisters. This apparently astonished them because they didn't recognise her. I imagine they might have been even more stunned if they had recognised her.

She goes home and asks her fairy godmother - who was apparently waiting - if she can go again the next night. It seems to me unlikely that even fairy-tale monarchs would hold balls every single day, but apparently this one does, because she goes the next night and forgets to leave at a quarter to twelve, instead leaving as the clock strikes, leaving the glass slipper on the steps. The sisters report after the ball that the prince had put it in his pocket. They said he kept kissing it all evening, and they were sure he was in love with the mysterious beauty. Whom he knows nothing about. But that part isn't really Noel's fault - it's the usual fairy tale crap.

Of course the story unfolds as per usual - the sisters did everything they could to force their big fat feet into the tiny little slipper... Ooh, did we mention the ugly sisters are also fat? But luckily there is a chance for their redemption, as, when they discover she was indeed the beautiful princess, beg for forgiveness and Cinderella tells them she will always love them. She then (because she was as good as she was beautiful) invites her sisters to live in the palace with her and they marry two noblemen.

I'm actually all in favour for adapting fairy tales - I certainly like to do it all the time - but I'm not sure this really hits the right spot. I mean, isn't it awfully convenient that the sisters hate Cinderella while their mother forces her to be a servant, but suddenly want forgiveness just as soon as she earns her riches? It seems odd that the story about Cinderella ends up being about the two sisters - which makes me wonder whether Noel rather felt sorry for them. Her incarnation of them does make them rather petty, vain characters.

And I think this is one of the problems of this book - Noel is pressed with the task of infusing life into well-worn old stories. There are some nice touches, like the sweetmeats (later revealed to be candied oranges) and the fact that the sisters make fun of Cinderella whilst gossiping all their secrets. One suspects maybe they might have been friends, were it not for the mother's influence. But on the other hand, Noel has named this book "Favourite Fairy Tales", and we're expecting Cinderella, which is a fairy tale, not some gritty family drama.

Anyway, on to the next story, which is Tom Thumb. This story confused me because I was sure I remembered Tom Thumb being vastly different to the story in the book, although I think I had it confused with Thumbelina, another story about a thumb-sized individual. The story opens with a woodcutter, his wife, and seven boys between the ages of 7 and 10 (the woodcutter's wife always seemed to have two babies at once is the sole explanation for this). They are poor and their youngest child causes them grief because he doesn't say a word, but is actually the wisest of the brothers. Noel notes because he didn't say anything he had plenty of time to listen and learn.

I can just imagine a parent of a particularly talkative child saying that last a little too loudly and clearly... In any case, for some reason this very small, silent child is still the bane of their life. I am not sure why, but perhaps young Tom was born prematurely (he was the size of a man's thumb, after all) and perhaps nowadays we would say he is disabled or autistic. The Golden Goose has a similar theme, with the youngest brother being disliked and called "Simpleton" but ending up with all the riches. Perhaps there was some element of disability rights in ye olde days, though only for the boys.

The family are very poor, and the parents decide to abandon their children in the woods. Hansel, I mean Tom, is very clever and collects white pebbles, which he scatters behind them to guide them home again, and then they get abandoned again, and Hansel, I mean Tom, scatters breadcrumbs, which get eaten by the birds, so they're lost.

I can't help but think that it was actually a pretty stupid plan all round, however. The woodcutter abandons his children in dense forest so they can't come home? How on earth did he find his own way home then? Silly. And Tom, despite apparently never talking, does choose this most opportune moment to say "Don't worry, brothers! Father and mother have left us here, but I know how to get us back home. Follow me!" and with not a word of how astonished his brothers must have been. Why did you never speak before? I never had anything I needed to say...

Of course, I mustn't miss the charming interlude where the mother frets and the father gets impatient and threatens to beat her. Honestly, leaving out spindles but including threats of domestic violence? Is this book really meant to be suitable for children?

After various perils, including wolves who threaten to eat them up but somehow don't get around to it, the boys find a house on the edge of the forest. A woman with a good-natured face opens the door and explains that this is the home of a wicked ogre who eats children for breakfast. Tom asks if they might stay, as the wolves in the forest would certainly eat them up otherwise, although they're not in the forest anymore, apparently. Tom (talkative little kid, now) suggests the the ogre might take pity on them. So the ogre's wife (some women really don't marry well) takes them in, and then the ogre returns.

And the ogre says, "Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum..." Oh, no he doesn't. But he does notice a smell of raw meat, and finds the boys, hiding under the bed, and although they all beg for their life, he tells his wife to make the gravy. She points out that it's a little late for a dinner party, and persuades him to wait until the morning.

OK, I'm going to be brave and read the story properly now. If I have nightmares, I'm blaming Susanna Noel. Might have to leave the light on tonight...

All right, back now. So, the ogre's wife puts Tom and the boys to bed (the same bed
- they did that in the olden days) in one room. But the ogre has seven daughters who all sleep in the same bed (a different bed) too. They all sleep with crowns on their heads (they didn't tend to do that in the olden days). Tom, not wanting to be eaten in the night, switches the brothers' nightcaps (I don't know where they got nightcaps from) with the daughters' crowns. I must mention at this point that the daughters are, of course, implied to be ugly.

They all had wonderful complexions because, like their father, they ate a lot of raw meat, but they had little round eyes and crooked noses, and huge mouths with sharp, pointed teeth.

Both some dodgy dietary advice and what seems like some gratuitous ugliness. Though I suppose if they were beautiful, what happens next would seem terribly sad.

Yes, the ogre is peckish in the middle of the night. And he gets his big knife out and slices his daughters to pieces.


I mean, I know we can't blame Tom for not wanting to be eaten, also the ogre is pretty stupid to not recognise his own daughters, also the ogre shouldn't be chopping up small children anyway, but in all seriousness, given that Noel says Tom and the brothers run away while it is still the middle of the night, facing ravenous wolves anyway, was the hat-switching trick really necessary?

I know I'm probably being melodramatic, because most fairy tales are somewhat bloodthirsty - the original Cinderella had the ugly sisters chopping off bits of their big fat feet so they would fit in the shoes. Snow White made her stepmother dance in hot iron shoes (regrettably no glass mountains involved though). But it seems weird that in a book where the ugly sisters are redeemed, the hero of another tale is allowed to cause an ogre to kill his own children. It stops short of his actually eating them, although mainly this is so that Mrs Ogre can faint at the sight of them the next day.

Ogre is certainly rather angry in the morning. He fetches the seven-league boots, and catches up with the boys, who apparently ran seven leagues through dense forest in the night. I know, I'm a pedant, but seriously, it seems unlikely, particularly as they've barely eaten. At this point they've managed to find their way very nearly back home, but they see the ogre leaping from mountain to mountain and crossing rivers in a single bound and Tom hides them all under a rock.

And it all ends happily, for Tom at least, because the ogre falls asleep, Tom nicks the boots, and goes back to Mrs Ogre, telling her that her husband has been taken captive by thieves who will kill him unless they get all his silver and gold. The wife, who is clearly extremely gullible, gives Tom all their riches, and he goes home to his parents and brothers, who never go hungry again. It is really rather like Jack and the Beanstalk, but with some extra devious twists. I'll leave it to you to decide which you prefer...

The review (and general snarking!) will continue in Part 2.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

So about Nick Griffin on Question Time...

Appreciate I may be preaching to the choir here, but a rant is always good...

Firstly, please go to http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/default.stm and leave a comment if you can, there are far too many scary Griffin sympathisers on there...

Now, the infamous edition of Question Time. What's a relief is that Nick Griffin came across as an idiot. Claimed he'd been misquoted, but refused to deny anything specific, apart from apparently "I never said black people walk like monkeys"... yeah, no one had accused him of that. Then he attempted to deny things he'd said on film with a leader of the Ku Klux Klan ("an entirely non-violent one!"). He even laughed when Bonnie Greer said, "If I was in your party, I'd be scared!" But the joke was on him.

What concerned me rather was the way that the other speakers never quite addressed either the Iraq issue or the immigration issue - surely this is where Griffin holds the most sway. The one moment where somebody perhaps got close to refuting him was when he said "bogus asylum seekers" and Sayeeda Warsi said "No, there is no such thing as a bogus asylum seeker, the term is asylum seeker, it's a legal term" but didn't elaborate, unfortunately. I also wish someone had addressed how the mainstream parties also scapegoat immigrants, like that appalling 2005 Tory campaign.

Also, the furore over his use of the term "indigenous". As Bonnie Greer pointed out, his idea of what is "indigenous British" is flawed anyway... White Britons are Celtic, Roman, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Norman etc. Worse than that, his erroneous assumption that being "indigenous British" is comparable to being Maori in New Zealand or "Red Indians (sic)" in America. Worryingly, that seems to have struck a chord with a few of the people on BBC Have Your Say... despite the obvious extrapolation of that idea. If Griffin wants all the immigrants and their descendents to go home, does he want all the emigrants and their descendents to come back? Should America and New Zealand and Australia be emptied of anyone other than the aboriginals? Scarily I might have some respect for Griffin if he actually said that... but then his pals, the non-violent KKK, might not agree with him. He also had no real answer to what is meant to happen to people of mixed ethnicity

Also his use of phrases such as genocide and lynch mob surely show just how ridiculous his argument is. He seems to think that white British people suffer racism, but uses phrases that imply Nazi gas chambers used to kill Jews, homosexuals, disabled people, and anyone they didn't like... or his pals the KKK hanging black people. The very fact that Griffin is allowed to appear on national TV, on a two-thirds White British panel, and that those who support him are allowed to say so, on BBC websites no less, makes this exaggeration of terms so absurd I can't find words to describe it.

Anyway, to be honest I rather feel sorry for Griffin... he seems to live in a sad world where diversity is bad and the English are horrendously oppressed. He should grow up, get to know a few people with different backgrounds, and also go to some folk festivals. England's not dead, it's alive and well, just aware that it's not the centre of the universe.

...And now I rather want a curry...

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Male bias in movies - why?

Gender relations is a rather tricky kettle of fish. In a Facebook note, I talked about the Bechdel Test which is a very simple measure of whether women are properly represented in films...

A film passes the Bechdel test if...

1) It has two or more women in it
2) Who talk to each other
3) About something other than a man.

One of the reasons this is quite a satisfying measure is that it is so simple and yet so many films fail. After writing the original post, I saw both the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Fantastic Four. LoEG had one female character. The Fantastic Four had about three female characters, none of whom spoke to each other (to be fair there was a near miss at the end, in which two women got a drink together but didn't actually say anything before the camera angle changed). The Da Vinci Code only just passed, in the last ten minutes of the film, and had four female characters (only one named) to its myriad male characters.

God knows why I watched the Da Vinci Code, but I was disappointed by the other two. I wasn't exactly expecting brilliance but I like superhero films and I know plenty of women who do. Why then, are we so underrepresented in the cast, relegated to the one stock "girl" character and/or love interest?

It's also something found in kids' movies and TV. Not all of them to be fair - of Disney movies alone, Jungle Book, Bambi, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Pirates of the Caribbean (all the trilogy), The Lion King, Aladdin, all fail. But Beauty and the Beast (I think. If you count tea pots), The Little Mermaid (there's a maid who talks at Ariel while she's bathing) and Cinderella pass. Feel free to add your own examples of failures and passes.

Perhaps this apparent discrepancy is down to style of film. All the failed Disney films mentioned have an element of the "buddy" story, two (sometimes three) guys, on a journey of discovery. With Jungle Book, it's Mowgli, Baloo, and Bagheera. In Bambi, it's Bambi and Thumper (and Flower, of course!). Toy Story it's Woody and Buzz. In Pirates, Jack and Will. In the Lion King, Simba, Timon and Pumbaa. In Aladdin, it's Aladdin and the Genie. And of course, Abu. It's a time-honoured tradition. Best pals, have fun, beat the bad guy, one of them gets the girl. There are hundreds of movies with this template, even the Muppet Movie starts with Kermit and Fozzie on a roadtrip.

And it makes me wonder what the female equivalent of this is. Thelma and Louise, obviously. Mamma Mia certainly comes close, being about one woman and her daughter, both of whom have two best friends with whom they can sing Abba songs. And both characters get the guy (not the same one, obviously) while their friends are humorous and supportive in the background.

It also makes me wonder what it is that means that in all these various movies where one guy "roadtrips" or equivalent, that a woman so rarely comes along. Is it to prevent inevitable romance? (One thing I will say for the Da Vinci Code is that I was pleased that the two main characters managed to grow merely a warm friendship through all the trials they suffered together.)

Is it because the idea of women roadtripping seems inherently wrong? Perhaps, alas, here's the rub. In old tales there are always wandering knights, and wandering minstrels, while women were staying put having babies. True, there are the occasional tales where women climb up glass mountains wearing iron shoes (there are always iron shoes for some reason) but it's only in the course of true love. Even poor Jane Eyre fled from Thornfield to avoid damaging her chastity and not out of any spirit of adventure.

So maybe my conclusion has to be we women, and anyone else who feels underrepresented by the film industry (LGBTQI people and people from ethnic minorities, step this way) should all stop watching silly male buddy movies, loose the bonds of our oppression and go on one big roadtrip. Who needs movies when we have real life?

Let's ride into the sunset!

(Does anyone here have a car?)

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Alphabetical Pie

I hadn't written a parody for ages and then I hit on the idea of a parody with each line beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, preferably with internal alliteration too. But by the time I'd got to the chorus, and the letter T, I decided I didn't want to see another thesaurus again.

So, to the tune of American Pie...

An age and an age ago
Becomes me to brood over
Choruses creating curled-up lips
Discerning destiny's throw of dice
Expressive dancing I'd entice
For felicitious feelings it equips
Gelid February goaded grieving
Helped handsomely by papers heaving
Ignoble info inside
Just jilted me to abide
Knowledge scarce on tears I shed
Learning of the lass he'd wed
Maybe I was moved, that said
Now all the notes have died

Oh, over! Our American Pie
Parked my pickup by the flood protectors
Quit and quite dry
Rural rakes were refreshing with rye
Singing, soon I will sigh my last sigh
Today will be the time that I die

(I think "ignoble info inside" for "bad news on the door step" is probably my favourite line. "Flood protectors" makes me wince, and "knowledge" seems like cheating somehow...)