Review: Spider-man — Homecoming (cinema)


Well, that’s Blitzkrieg Bop stuck in my head forever now.

I was pretty ambivalent about seeing this beforehand, but I need to get better use of my cinema membership, and I want my local cinema to be used more so it stays open, so… it appealed more than Cars 3. And it bucked the trend regarding my waning interest in Spider-man movies! I only saw Sam Raimi’s 1 and 2; one Amazing Spider-man was enough for me; and despite everyone telling me he was the best thing in Civil War *whispers* I still haven’t see Civil War. But I’m actually quite keen to now, which is an outcome that way outstrips my expectations for how much I’d enjoy this movie.

Right, sorry, enthusing, yes!

The first sentence was my way of saying this has a great soundtrack. I don’t need to reiterate what everyone’s already said about Peter Parker actually being allowed to be a kid in this, but it does make the movie much more refreshing, not least when it manages to combine his unpopularity with a believable level of nerdiness. It was about time we ditched the skateboard, frankly. And it probably helps that we don’t need to see his transformation from unhealthy super-nerd to … super-nerd with a six-pack. Nuance — shock! — is brought to the dynamics of the American high school (well, the academically prestigious New York high school anyway), because the love interest is also a nerd; the weird outsider is a nerd; the bully is a nerd … and I’m getting sick of the word ‘nerd’. Nerds are great anyway. Basically, Spider-man — Homecoming builds on some of the successful alterations of The Amazing Spider-man but casts a guy who can plausibly play a teenager in the main role. And — praise be — Uncle Ben didn’t even need to die onscreen or within the narrative timeline. Not even the man with the nice sandwiches needed to die!

In fact, no one died!

The Day Today – in 1975, no one died…

I really wanted Michael Keaton as Tooms not to be Michael Keaton, but to be Doug Hutchison, who played Eugene Tooms in two of the creepiest X Files episodes ever. Anyway, I guess Michael Keaton was pretty good. His Tooms was the kind of antagonist you’d expect from this movie: a cross between the archetypal Spider-man antagonist (surrogate dad figure, is confused about his priorities, thinks he’s just helping his family but is in love with Mad Science) and the archetypal Iron Man antagonist (Tony Stark killed his family/dog/job/blew up his country/stole his science etc etc). It was a combination that worked surprisingly well, and Spider-man — Homecoming isn’t here for any of your usual Spider-man déonouement clichés: the set of scenes in which Peter and then Tooms recognise who the other is is done brilliantly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic from the moment Tooms opens the front door, letting us suspect (along with Peter) for a good while that this is a set-up, that Tooms has restrained the house’s occupants and brought Peter into a trap. But then a supremely awkward feeling takes over as it’s revealed to be the cozy family home of the villain. And normally this kind of thing is done in such a tired way that it really bugs me, but Tooms’ daughter* and wife keep the lightness of domesticity about it, particularly in the car journey where teenage exasperation meets sinister scheming. In the end, Peter’s not made to have the weight of anyone’s death on his hands, and complications are avoided because Tooms’ family moves away, with no suspicion of Peter’s involvement.

Avoiding creepiness as a male is a recurring theme in the movie too, and Peter treads a believable line between longing after Liz but not wanting to be a jerk about it. From Stark’s early ‘wait, that was creepy, wasn’t it?’ — his usual brand of admitting problematic behaviour out loud as though all he has to do to make amends is acknowledge that it’s wrong, without doing anything about it — to Peter’s baffled rejection of ‘suit lady’ Karen’s advice, Peter Parker shows he’s a hero without a sense of entitlement. Marissa Tomei’s Aunt May is also a refreshing take on the character, both relaxed in a New Age-y kind of way, and yet clearly worried about her ability to single-handedly raise a teenage boy. The scene where she and Peter try to figure out how to tie a Windsor knot using Youtube says it all, really.

Of the other MCU movies the one it most resembles is Ant Man (which I also thoroughly enjoyed). It skirts the big stuff, doing another nice job of showing the fall-out of the Chitauri invasion and, like Ant Man, it’s a story in which the new hero, manipulated by an older hero (even one with good intentions) needs to learn how to define themselves and to stand up for their own position in, or around, the team. Peter starts off on the outside, longing to be on the inside, but this is about the Avengers, not about who he hangs out with at school. Along the way he misses out on the kind of formative teenage experiences that previous Spider-men have pined over, and the ‘tough love’ that Stark tries to claim as the making of him as an Avenger is ultimately the making of him as a more rounded, normal teenager. That Stark still doesn’t understand what it entails to ‘be better than [him]’ is clear from the scene in which Peter surprises him, Happy and even Pepper.

So, a feel-good Spider-man movie; a Spider-man who longs for something, but who is mature enough to realise when it’s handed to him that it’s not something he needs right now. For his own sake, it can wait. There’s no great self-sacrificing moment where he must interalise his angst in order to protect a Gwen or an MJ; by the end of the movie quite a few people know his secret and he’s much better off for it.

*Referring to her as this to avoid getting too spoilery.

Review: Guardians of the Whills (Greg Rucka)


Inevitably, I’m going to compare this with Rebel Rising. Inevitably, it does far better. Also — no doubt equally inevitably — it sadly does not confirm anything about the nature of Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe’s relationship. But it doesn’t deny anything either. Probably the best we can hope for from Disney’s Star Wars right now.

This is a book aimed at a slightly younger than young adult audience, and is interspersed with black and white illustrations of Chirrut and Baze with Very Serious expressions on. Despite the po-faced presentation, Rucka conveys the characters’ dry humour well; the finest moments are when the two of them are left to bicker and bounce off each other. Much of the book is simply scene-setting on Jedha, explaining how life in the Holy City deteriorates once the Empire takes an interest in the moon’s kyber crystals. A plot emerges subtly from the side-lines about three-quarters of the way through, tying together characters and details encountered earlier. It’s simply done, and it’s nicely done. Let’s be honest: few stories of the cast of Rogue One are going to be happy stories, and I did find myself fearing a different ending at some points. But Rucka lets our heroes get away with their sheer chutzpah, allowing us a glimpse of one hopeful moment in Jedha’s grim period of occupation.

It’s been pointed out in fandom already that what unites Rogue OneRebel Rising and Guardians of the Whills is the presence of Saw Gerrera. Initially I felt like relying on Saw in Guardians of the Whills was something of a cop-out; aren’t there enough stories to tell of the Holy City that you could use original characters? But Rucka does a good job of showing how Gerrera’s actions affect life in the city, of how he manipulates those who are already fighting back in their own way, and how he will seek to turn any situation to his advantage. His Gerrera rings far more true to me than Revis’ — though she did have the more complex task of showing how he changed and his paranoia deepened — and Rucka paints him in plausible shades of grey in his private meeting with Baze. Baze and Chirrut’s reactions to Gerrera are muted and knowing, grimly accepting of what is necessary but also wary of Gerrera’s methods. As a direct lead-up to the situation as it is in Rogue One it’s a rich, detailed character study that works nicely as a complement to the film.

Original characters who are introduced include three women — none of whom are in Saw’s team, which is something I’m still pondering on. Killi, Kaya and Denic are supporting characters who are just rounded out enough to make an impression. Their individual personalities shine through the brief encounters we have with them and each one tells us something about the Holy City’s past and the difficulties of living in its present. No romance is foisted on the reader (*side-eyes Rebel Rising again*), but the respect between Baze and Chirrut and these women is palpable, and there’s real emotional heft in the siblings Kaya and Killi’s relationship.

As for Chirrut and Baze, well, we learn little more of their youth, but it seems to me that one could infer quite a bit from the final word of the novel in reference to them: ‘together’. They share a small room, Baze cooks, they drink tea that Baze hates, they snark and snipe affectionately, they worry for each other without it undermining the respect they have for each other, and they agree wordlessly on plenty.

Rucka hedges with regard to Chirrut’s Force abilities, allowing him some measure of Force-awareness, but backing it up with an echo box to help him navigate the city. It’s a compromise that works well; if he’d tried to convince me that Chirrut was in no way Force sensitive I’d have rolled my eyes out of my head. As I said in my post on re-watching Rogue One, the depiction of the Whills and of Jedha was one of the things I appreciated most about the story. It took the Force away from the Jedi, freeing it from their hierarchical system once more; Guardians of the Whills builds on this with interspersed ‘extracts’ from the sacred texts of the Guardians, hinting at all the different ways people have interpreted the Force. You don’t need to be a Jedi to be Force sensitive, and Chirrut’s persistence in developing his limited connection with it shows another side to interactions between the Force and its users. (I’m speaking here in ignorance of the animated series and most new EU novels, to be fair, but I’m still bitter about the prequels’ depictions of the Force and the Jedi).

If I have one regret about Guardians of the Whills it’s that Disney chose to aim it at such a young audience. And it feels churlish to regret this, but when we’re never going to get sequels to Rogue One it’s frustrating that all the prequels are aimed at teen audiences and younger. I’d love to read Rucka’s take on Chirrut and Baze’s youth, on life as a Guardian when that still meant something on Jedha: something with more depth and detail than you can fit in a book aimed at younger audiences. I mean, when I was the age this book is aimed at, I was discovering Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy for the first time. And I’m not saying Star Wars shouldn’t be marketed to kids — that’s how it all began, of course — but I’d like to see it complemented by some heftier works. Still waiting on that Tales from the Holy City, Disney. Come on, get to it.

Review: Emily Brontë: Heretic (Stevie Davies)


(Illustration by Rovina Cai, for The Folio Society’s edition of Wuthering Heights)

I’m no English literature student, and I don’t really know how to review this book. But I do know that I really enjoyed reading it; on nearly every page there was a turn of phrase to make me fall in love with it again and again. I might not agree with every word that Davies writes (well, wrote in the early nineties; this book was published in 1994), but she writes them all passionately, persuasively, and engagingly.

This book is part literary analysis of Wuthering Heights and Emily’s poetry, and part biography. Both elements seem successful to me; her Lacanian reading of identity in Wuthering Heights only lost me at the analysis of shared letters in the names used in the novel (but the analysis of personal names is something that’s been badly misused by scholars in my field, so I’m skeptical whenever I come across it). For the most part, Davies is appropriately cautious when offering up suggestions regarding Emily’s sexuality, or her experience of masturbation. She willingly admits to a lack of proof, but carries the reader along with talk of her own intuition; it’s not an approach you’d get away with in a strictly academic book, perhaps, but it’s a very small part of her overall argument in Heretic. On Davies’ side is not only the striking language of the poem ‘Julian M. and A. G. Rochelle’, but the hypocrisy of generations of male scholars who have dismissed the visions of religious women as the by-products of sexual (self-)pleasure, but who view the same language as ‘religious visionary’ when it appears in poems such as ‘Julian M. and A. G. Rochelle’.

One of the most refreshing and successful aspects of the book is the way that Davies places Emily in her historical context, scrubbing her clean of the romantic, patronising idea that she was simply a ‘natural genius’ who’d read a few Gothic novels. She refers to Charlotte’s assertion that ‘Ellis Bell’ might have been a provocative essayist and philosopher, and highlights the modernity of Emily’s attitudes towards the natural world, human nature and Christianity. This is aided by the publication, for the first time, of two essays she wrote when in Belgium: Le Chat and Le Papillon. When, towards the close of the book, Davies prints an analysis of one of Emily’s last Gondal poems, concerning a mercenary who reflects with disgust on the nature of civil war (written and reworked as revolution struck France again), it is astonishing to read that others have viewed her as apolitical, disengaged from history, and burnt-out and absent of new ideas at this point of her life.

Davies also provides a sharp antidote to the romanticised ideas surrounding Emily’s death, particularly that she wanted to die, her productivity exhausted. The Emily that Davies characterises is a doer: constantly busy around the house, impatient with inactivity. She is equally impatient with illness, and the refusal to see a doctor is ascribed to her natural stubbornness and pride, and to the roughness with which she’s seen treating everyone from Héger, the Belgian professor, to her beloved dog.

It becomes clear through the book that Davies holds Charlotte — and the family associates whose accounts emerged to feed a growing curiosity about the house of literary siblings — responsible for a good deal of the softening and romanticising of Emily Brontë’s legacy. Just as Davies is quite happy for us to see Emily at her most brutal, undignified and unpleasant (a ‘gurt bellaring bull’ as Branwell calls her, mid-tantrum), so she is content to expose Charlotte as a conservative, evangelical Tory, who hated revolution, thought the poor should know their place, and was horrified by her sister’s perfectly lucid, but radical, heretical thinking. I’ll admit to feeling a little sorry for Charlotte, given her portrayal in this book; Davies sticks faithfully to her subject, so that the nuance she brings to Emily’s less pleasant traits is not made available in her representation of Charlotte. I’d love to read Davies’ full take on the other Brontë sisters.

This nuance is carried over to the analysis of Wuthering Heights, however, where the ‘heresy’ that Davies detects in Emily’s thinking emerges in the shared religion of Heathcliff and Cathy, who worship only each other, with an unthinking necessity that leaves no room in their lives for the Church, represented in the book only by Joseph, and the abandoned ruin of a chapel on the moors. Davies contextualises the cruelty of the characters within the natural world: Emily saw the survival techniques of birds and animals and tadpoles on the moors, and she accepted its necessity. She was not so lenient on mankind, though, wrestling again and again with the standards of praise assigned to human cruelty and animal nature. Her portrayal of Heathcliff wasn’t the accidental byproduct of a fevered artistic imagination, but a precise study of humankind, as finely controlled by the author as the ‘wild’ Heathcliff controls his ambitions over his vengeance on Hindley.

Although Davies asserts again at the close of the book that Emily was ‘not nice, but proud, discourteous and misanthropic’, her admiration is undimmed by this. Davies highlights Emily’s stubborn individuality, the way she carved out a domestic space in which she could be practical, but undisturbed by others’ demands, the contradictions and frustrated discussions with herself that emerge in her poetry. She made me want to go and re-read a lot of that Gondal poetry that I’d previously just skimmed over, lacking the context for the names in the titles. She certainly made me want to re-read Wuthering Heights. In that, her book does Emily Brontë justice, opening up depths and angles on her thinking that I look forward to bringing to my next reading of her works.

Review: Rebel Rising (Beth Revis)


Spoilers for Rogue One as well as Rebel Rising throughout this review.

I want to be fair to this YA story about Jyn Erso’s youth, but I’m finding it really hard. Rogue One ensured that I was the Star Wars EU’s bitch again, for life, because having killed off all these new characters who I already adored, the marketing teams knew I’d be slavering for any tidbits they’d throw my way. So I was obviously eager for the YA novel about Jyn, the kids’ book about Chirrut and Baze, and the forthcoming graphic novel about Cassian and K-2S0, all meant to give the starving fans of the died-too-soon a little more information about their faves. But I’ve been trying to keep realistic expectations about how far these might deviate from my own ideas about these characters and their pasts. And realistic expectations about how much a franchise with a drafted-in author will have thought about characterisation in the way that I, a PhD graduate in the field of literature, who’s been voraciously reading and writing fanfic again, will have thought about it. Unfortunately, Rebel Rising disappointed even those expectations.

Let me get two particularly petty points off my chest first:

  1. Devaronians don’t have furry arms!
  2. Why would Zohrada call Jyn ‘Jyn’ just before she dies, not ‘Liana’?

These petty points are to remind me that no one who proof-read this cares as much about the Star Wars universe as the fans themselves, so, assuming this book is intended as a gateway to the EU for new, young female fans, I need to try and be fair. And possibly just to stick to reading fanfiction.

Most of Rebel Rising focusses on Jyn’s time with Saw, with another large chunk of it given over to a year she spends on the planet Skuhl. Jyn’s real wandering years — 18–21 — are skipped over in a couple of paragraphs near the end. This means that Revis (none of whose novels I’ve read before, and none of which seem to be part of the Star Wars franchise) can focus on a young Jyn, still hopeful, and try to explain her loss of trust and hope in the galaxy. It also gives a lot of time to Saw, who sounds nothing like the Saw Gerrera of Rogue One in this novel, so perhaps he’s more like the Saw we meet in Clone Wars? I’ve not yet caught up on the animated series. But this Saw is bemused and somewhat under-prepared for the introduction of an eight-year-old girl to his (literal) man cave on Wrea. Saw Gerrera, the Saw Gerrera, who’s been nursing an ever-growing hatred and paranoia since his sister’s death, and he didn’t have a plan for the eventuality that he’d get Jyn off Lah’mu, but neither of her parents? Who didn’t bother to say to Jyn before anything else, before anyone else arrived on Wrea: ‘your name isn’t safe anymore. Here’s what we’re going to tell everyone else about who you are and why you’re here.’ Frankly, the Saw Gerrera in Revis’ novel deserved his betrayal by Reese, Dudebro Extraordinaire, whose Villainy(TM) and Loose Morals were evident from the first time we met him.

There are so many details in the plotting that made no sense to me. Why leave Jyn on Tamsye Prime?? It’s crawling with Imperials and has a munitions factory being bombarded by star destroyers. It has a population based on indentured servitude so (MOTHERFUCKER AS I TYPED THIS I REALISED SOMETHING*) so has way more people than ships to get the people off-planet. It seems like an unnecessary gamble to leave the girl you’re trying to keep hidden from the Empire right there in the thick of things; it’s not like it takes the next people Jyn meets long to figure out that’s where she’s fled from, after all.

Oh god, I’m going to have to talk about those people, aren’t I?

It’s not enough, apparently, for Jyn to have lost her parents and Saw: third time’s the charm! So Revis gives her an idyllic year on Skuhl, living with Akshaya and Hadder Ponta. The former is the archetypal mother figure: over-protective, huggy, and very caring. The latter is the strangest seventeen-year-old boy I’ve ever heard of: polite to his mother, an excellent cook, seemingly unemployed for a whole year after he’s finished school. He’s so sweet he even gives Jyn a cute little rodent to pet after they have sex in a field.


Is this kind of barftastic romance a thing that needs to happen in YA novels? I mean, I’m glad Hadder’s a nice person (and explicitly described as not white — the representation in this novel is actually great, even if nothing else is), and I guess I’ll take it on faith that some seventeen-year-old boys in the galaxy are that nice, but did Jyn’s life of grief and loss really have to be redefined all over again by another male?

She goes from seeking Saw’s approval, and viewing him as a heroic figure, to seeing great things in Hadder’s future. What did she see in her future? Was it really just settling down and being homely on Skuhl?

I think Rebel Rising suffers greatly from one major problem: no one laid out what this story is meant to be for.

Rebel Rising needed to take us to meet the Jyn Erso of Rogue One, to show us how she became what she is. Code-breaking and hacking don’t feature in the story of that Jyn Erso at all; nothing in Rogue One relies on her forgery skills. What she does in Rogue One, is somehow light up a room so that people will follow her into certain death (look, if you didn’t get this from the movie you’ll have to take my word for it; plus it’s spelled out in the Freed novelisation). Her skills are in combat and leadership, even if the latter barely gets fully realised before she dies.

Although her combat skills feature in Rebel Rising, and they’re some of the most satisfying scenes, she’s largely kept from doing anything too unpleasant by being assigned the hacker girl role. Cue lots of looking to the men for affirmation. Ugh. Additionally, because she’s made into a works-alone hacker, we never really see her take on a leadership role. A prime example Revis could have used is the previously canonical story of how Jyn actually got arrested: trying to steal weapons and destroy a dictator’s ship on Corulag. It’s all there on Wookieepedia; fandom’s been drawing on it for months for their fics. But Revis chooses to throw that out, squeezing Jyn once more between the Rebels and the Empire, forcing her into a betrayal whilst also conveniently implying that she might have come round and joined the Rebellion herself, left to her own devices.

Revis’ characterisation of Jyn’s dislike of the Rebellion is heavy-handed, and all ultimately comes back to the deaths of Hadder and Akshaya, which may, or may not, have been the fault of the Rebels. I’ve seen Jyn’s professed dislike of the Rebellion in the movie (her scene with Saw, and her argument with Cassian) used as a stick with which to beat her in bits of fandom: oh she’s apolitical, she doesn’t care, she’s only doing this for her father. Although Revis tries to maintain nuance — Jyn does The Right Thing(TM) with the slavers — in trying to make Jyn too nice, too likeable a person, she doesn’t do her any favours. Jyn never really does anything wrong, she doesn’t make any mistakes, she’s not cruel or sharp in the way that she’s become by Rogue One — in the scenes with Saw and Cassian I read it as a case of her saying what she thinks will hurt them most, rather than saying what she genuinely thinks or believes.

I don’t know about you, but as a seventeen-year-old, with access only to the nightlife of Hull, let alone a whole galaxy of troubles, I was able to make quite a lot of mistakes. Also, having grown up in a remote bit of countryside, I can tell you that in the days before the internet you could get a bit weird over long summer holidays playing on your own — let alone spending three years on a remote planet with only your parents for company, then living in a cave that was occupied only by an old, paranoid partisan for 75% of the time. Basically, Revis’ Jyn is far too well-adjusted for me to believe in her.

Ok, it’s a YA novel, we don’t want to make it too dark. But, representation aside, couldn’t we have had something a bit more imaginative? I’d have told Jyn’s story completely differently to this. I know a lot of other fic writers who would have. In fact I could name at least half a dozen whose versions of Jyn’s backstory I’d rather have seen. I’ve written in blogs here before about how, as a medievalist, you get used to multiple versions of a tale existing. You learn to embrace the variants, the different interpretations. But you’ll still have versions you prefer.

For now, I’m keeping my headcanons, and discarding Rebel Rising.

* What occurred to me as I typed that: Revis is implying Cassian is the boy from Tamsye Prime. No, this makes no sense in canon, nor does much else about this novel. But he supposedly reminds Jyn of someone she can’t place when she’s in the command centre on Yavin 4, and there’s no one else in Rebel Rising this could be referring to.

Review: Wonder Woman (cinema)


First of the new DC-verse movies I’ve seen! Largely, I went because of the argument that is now defunct, given Wonder Woman‘s box office performance: I’m sick of conversations about how successful female-directed, female-led superhero movies need to be to be considered a ‘success’. Plenty of people went to see all the other new DC movies because they liked Batman, or Superman. I went to see Wonder Woman because it’s a female-led, female-directed superhero movie. So, obviously I don’t want to write anything incorrect from a point of clear ignorance, but nor do I feel I should need to look things up in order to make sense of what should work fine as a stand-alone movie.

The lack of enthusiasm in the above paragraph may have warned you that what follows might not be a popular opinion, given the internet’s adoration of the movie (well, the section of the internet I frequent, anyway). That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I loved probably two-thirds of it. But it all kind of went to shit somewhere between Diana and Steve’s slow-dance and The Obligatory Bit Where Everything Explodes.

I’ll admit to shivers and glossy eyes in the opening scenes set in Themiscyra: no doubt, had I seen this film at age ten or so, I’d have been shadow-boxing along with young Diana, and on my weekend horse-rides, I’d have been imagining that no BSA-approved inches-thick riding helmet came between my flowing hair and the winds of freedom. Genuinely, even as a thirty-year-old, I’d be very tempted to chuck everything else in for a life on Themiscyra anyway. With Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen in charge, who wouldn’t? I liked Hippolyta’s unyielding flexibility: say no repeatedly, then agree when it’s obvious it’s going to happen anyway. Why force Diana to leave home with a sour taste in her mouth? It was a refreshing moment, at least.

Though I could have done without the Amazons’ insistence on trying to copy Gal Gadot’s accent. If they all speak all the languages, couldn’t the actresses have just spoken with their usual voices? Ah well, it’s Hollywood multiculturalism; despite Ze German Accents making frequent appearances (I hope Steve Trevor’s German is better than Chris Pine’s German accent), we did get to enjoy Diana and Sameer’s whip-smart ripostes in any number of global languages. Though after that scene, Sameer’s linguistic abilities did seem to collapse into repeated exclamations of ‘voilá!’ that’s still pretty French I guess.

I’ll admit that I had to look up Sameer’s name, though he was the most fleshed-out of the side-characters (arguably including Steve Trevor). Throughout the movie, I found myself wondering: what’s up with the characterisation? Why can’t I get into these peoples’ story the way I could — and so many others seemingly couldn’t — in the case of Rogue One? Again we have a rag-tag ensemble of people from different backgrounds who haven’t been able to live the lives they wanted to live because of oppression and war. Many of the meetings occur for the first time; you can perfectly well tell, rather than show their backgrounds in this instance. But it was only Sameer’s comments on how he’d hoped to be an actor that really offered a peg for me to hook my imagination on to; Chief’s peoples’ oppression in the States gives him a backdrop, but not an individual story. Spud from Trainspotting (…Charlie?) had a story that was more trope than character, and his miraculous recovery from shell shock felt a little trite in hindsight, though I enjoyed it on the initial viewing.

Steve Trevor. Steve, Steve, Steve. Maybe I’m missing something, Steve. But with the promise that he ‘tried doing nothing, and that didn’t work’, I thought we’d learn more about his background, yet we never did. He was a solid sort of guy, the usual spy with a conscience, and I was finally won round at the moment he grabbed the lasso and wrapped it round his own wrist to admit that the mission was happening anyway and it was a terrible idea and they were probably going to die. But I wasn’t really feeling the romance between him and Diana. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough to be invested, and the movie didn’t explain — for me, at least — what Diana saw there in particular. Maybe it was just because Chris Pine is ‘above average.’ SPOILERS Of course, plenty of male action heroes and superheroes have their angsty yell of motivation when the benign love-interest dies, but I find those moments just as implausible as Diana’s own cry of pain. /SPOILERS

Gal Gadot’s Diana was certainly one of the best things in the movie. Despite her lack of knowledge of the world of men, and her still growing powers, she’s not quite any of the tropes you can apply to The Fifth Element‘s Leeloo — though maybe comes close to Phlebotinum Girl? — because, as applauded by plenty before me, she’s the hero of her own movie, and isn’t ever framed by the male gaze.Her naïveté is toyed with, but never undermines herastuteness. In the first two-thirds I hope she’ll be the hero on which plenty of young girls pin their ambitions; she’s blunt and passionate and incredibly powerful. When she crosses No Man’s Land it’s an effective bit of fantasy: this space could not be crossed without someone strong enough to draw all the fire. She’s there to do that, and it’s all the opportunity the other Allies need.

But the setting does not work so well in the rest of the movie. The ensuing scene in the village is more Saving Private Ryan than Wilfred Owen, right down to the snipers and sticky bombs (I’m trying to think of towns in WW1 settings; the French girls in All Quiet on the Western Front are an escape, like Paris for characters in Birdsong and Journey’s End [if I recall my A level synoptics correctly], and The Wipers Times has the necessary capture and defence of the press, but I don’t remember the town having a fully fledged cutsey Belgian society just waiting to pop out and dance once the fighting stops). The Germans are nasty proto-Nazis who don’t even pause to blink in astonishment at the sight of leather-clad women abseiling from shining white cliffs, wielding fiery arrows, where before there had been only grey fog and dark seas. That horrific gas developed by Dr Poison, crueller than any of the chemical weapons actually used indiscriminately in WW1, doesn’t even tickle our heroine’s lungs, and even Steve suffers no more than a delicate cough so long as he doesn’t enter the cloud for long. He Judges, who had a relative killed by gas in WW1, felt that a lot of this was actively disrespectful; I wouldn’t go so far, but WW1 is such a large part of the UK education system still that it meant I nitpicked at elements of the setting that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

SPOILERS And of course, when we come to the big finale, the ‘alternate’ part of this ‘alternate history’ setting really came to the fore. The battle with Ludendorff was satisfying, and justified the super-steroid he’d been snorting, in that it allowed Diana to believe she was really fighting Ares. Then Ares turned out to be David Thewlis. Sorry, I mean Ares turned out to be an actual plot point. Disappointing. But I went ‘ok, I guess, if we’re doing this we know she can’t kill him, because WW2 is right around the corner, right?’ Uh, wrong?

But how does Diana explain the Holocaust? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? All the other genocides and atrocities of the twentieth century? Her closing monologue speaks of the good and the bad in all humanity, but it’s already been completely undercut by the fact that she’d placed all hope of ending war in the destruction of the God of War, who she duly turned into a giant, smoking crater. German boys look up in astonishment and hug the Chief; everyone is happy, either because David Thewlis is dead, or because Ludendorff is dead, or because Steve blew up all the nasty gas (won’t it still be in the atmosphere? What if it bonds with water molecules?), or maybe because Diana didn’t kill Maru, she just casually dropped a tank on her… (an accident of editing, I’m sure)

The potential for something more interesting lay abandoned beneath the CGI: as Diana and Ares fought their pointless, divine battle, the humans scurried around getting stuff done. Not, perhaps, the best way to boost your superheroine’s connection with mankind at the climax of the action… /SPOILERS

Look – I’ll make the same kind of complaints when I watch Captain America: The First Avenger. The vast majority of that movie is three montages stitched together (Steve training, Steve on tour, Steve fighting Nazis), and HISHE mocked the ending far better than I could. That doesn’t mean that Wonder Woman shouldn’t be held to account for its own problems. Though personally, I blame the men: story by Zac Snyder, script by Allan Heinberg. You can shoot it however you want, you can act it as well as you like, but the plot holes will still be there.

Ah, but it did look gorgeous. Best use of bullet time since The Matrix itself. And Diana is the doe-eyed warrior of my heart. Dr Poison was underused, and I didn’t even get round to talking about it here, and I’d have loved more of Sameer and Etta and the others. There was a lot that the movie wanted to cram in, and depth was always going to be lost to breadth. It’s not the balance I’d have plumped for, and not the ending I’d have chosen, but I’m glad so many people are getting so much joy from it, and I’m looking forward to the other superheroine movies it will hopefully inspire.

Review: Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen)


The last Austen novel I read was Emma; it had a high standard to live up to, because the BBC’s recent(ish) adaptation with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller is one of my favourite four hours of television. Yet all that I loved about the TV series was to be found in the novel. Another favourite piece of costume drama is ITV’s Northanger Abbey, with Felicity Jones and JJ Feild (it was this that got me excited early on for Jones’ part in Rogue One). It’s light and knowing, fond of its characters, and beautifully presented.

I’m also usually quite happy to read the source material for TV series or movies after having seen the derivative product; on the other hand, I can be more picky when it’s a book I’ve loved, and I’m not certain the adaptation will live up to expectations. But generally, being a fan of medieval texts, I am quite accustomed to variation between versions, to the storyteller’s right to their own preferences, and to the idea that even changes that I might not much like can happen for a good reason. With this stated, I’ll admit early on that I still prefer the ITV adaptation’s script to the young Austen’s first novel; I think that those behind its adaptation are a little more fond of the characters than Austen herself appears to be.(1)

What struck me most in reading Northanger Abbey was that the positioning of Catherine as the heroine was about the character’s perception of the world, rather than about Austen’s decision to make her a protagonist. Perhaps that’s the most blindingly obvious thing one could say, but I’ve been familiar with the opening about Catherine’s potential for heroic stature for some time, although had no context in which to fit it until now. Eleanor Tilney is surely the novel’s real tragic, suffering ‘heroine’; but Catherine takes all the information she gets from Eleanor about Mrs Tilney’s death and Catherine never thinks of what this might have been like for Eleanor as the heroine of her own story. Instead it is all refracted through Catherine’s own perception of the world, in which she is the heroine. Similarly, when we learn of Eleanor’s own romantic troubles at the close of the novel, satisfactorily resolved with the surprise acquisition of a fortune and a title, it fits the pattern of the stories that Austen is gently mocking in a better way than Catherine and Henry’s swift, dutiful professions of love.

Apologies if that reads more like an undergraduate essay than normal; I realise that Austen is parodying the genre of the Gothic novel, but have never read one myself, so my own observations must be fairly shallow…

It’s funny, as you’d expect. And Austen’s acute powers of observation are already on full show in what is, at its core, the earliest novel she submitted for publication. But in comparison to the adaptation, I found its happy couple had dated poorly, even in comparison to Emma and Knightley (that’s an essay for a whole other day). Tilney is said to want to marry Catherine for no reason other than that she likes him and he’s flattered, and by the time his father sends her away in disgrace, Tilney feels obliged to make good on what has essentially been promised to her in all but word. Austen flings this information in the reader’s face right at the close of the story, when up until then, I had been quite happy to believe, as naïvly as Catherine, that he was naturally just as infatuated with her as she was with him. Now, I’ve no doubt that such honest gallantry was much to be valued in Austen’s time, and the point of the story is rather that, next to Eleanor’s quietly dramatic life, Catherine is a very ordinary girl, with very ordinary prospects, but it’s not an ending I relished! ITV’s adaptation sticks in its equivalent of Colin Firth in a pond — Catherine and Henry’s ride through the rain; her artfully muddied cheek(2) — plus all of Catherine’s fevered, novel-addled dreams, reminding us that the appeal of all those ‘horrid’ things Catherine loves reading is a good deal less sterile than Austen’s proper manners are able to let on.

The TV adaptation also allows for more of the melodrama that Austen resolutely keeps separate from her heroine’s life: though Austen’s Tilney guesses that Catherine suspected his father of murder, or something like it, he shrugs it off, and goes above and beyond to help her get over her embarrassment at having been discovered in such imaginings. Honestly, TV Tilney’s reaction is somewhat more plausible; he’s not exactly pleased to hear that she’s imagined his father to be a murderer, and his disappointment is that of one who enjoys her company as someone more equal to him than Austen’s Tilney finds Austen’s Catherine. In the novel, Tilney is able to overlook her wild assumptions apparently because he sees her as something so ignorant and unformed, that it seems he does not expect any better from her.

The patronising attempts of those around her to ‘improve’ her aside, Catherine is still a character I’m very fond of. She’s guileless and artless, as we are repeatedly told, but I recognise the simple hopefulness with which she imagines that everyone says precisely what they mean; the frustration and exhaustion she feels when around people like John Thorpe and General Tilney, and ultimately Isabella, who all exaggerate without thought, lying and contradicting themselves at every opportunity. Catherine’s worldview is stuck between the innocence of her loving, rural upbringing, and the wildness of the worlds she reads about in novels. She needs to learn about the middle ground, but without becoming jaded. I’m not sure that she’s ever allowed to reach that point fully in the novel, but then perhaps it’s just my cynical half-eye on the relationships in Eliot’s Middlemarch that makes me fear for the future of Catherine Morland that Austen never describes. When her mother mutters about what a learning experience running a household will be for her, I want to protect Catherine from all her future embarrassments. But perhaps that’s this reader’s defect rather than the novel’s.

(1) Ok, General Tilney is a fairly obvious exception. But the TV version’s interpretation of his attitude towards Mrs Tilney — a ‘kind of vampirism’ after all — allows Henry and Eleanor to both escape the unpleasantness of his household (which Austen herself shows), sidestepping what Austen sees as a beneficial waiting period for Henry and Catherine, but compensating for it by showing them to be mutually in love in a way that Austen holds back from. And what is the propriety of the Morlands to a modern audience that is quite happy for General Tilney to remain a villain?

Total aside here, but this reminds me of how perplexed I was at the end of watching the recent movie version of Vanity Fair. I got the impression, again never having read it, that as a satire the point was not to like the characters, but to amuse oneself at their expense, but that the movie felt rather sad and mean because it made much of its cast too likeable in their fallibility. On the other hand, reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, I railed against the stupidity of the characters and how much they annoyed me, not appreciating that it was meant to be a parody in its own right. Perhaps this is where I find myself confused in Northanger Abbery too: are characters in a satire or parody meant to be liked and likeable? No one reads Candide so they can empathise with Pangloss and Candide, right?

(2) Put this scene, Colin Firth in a pond, and the grain store scene from ITV’s Mayor of Casterbridge in all your ‘best depictions of unspoken sexual tension in a period drama’ lists…

Review: Santa Evita (Tomás Eloy Martínez)

(Photo by Robin Minchum, at Perón Perón [x])

I accumulated floods of file cards and stories so as to be able to fill in all the unexpected blank spaces of what, later on, was going to be my novel. But I left them where they were, leaving the story, because I am fond of unexplained blank spaces.

In this, I am of one mind with the author. And it is more for the ‘unexplained blank spaces’ and for the swampy, indefinable territory between history and fiction that I came to Santa Evita, than out of any knowledge or particular interest in Argentine history.

It’s a long, meandering novel, and it feels appropriate to begin by discussing the ending, not least as the ending concerns the work’s beginning. By its close, I felt more than anything the strength of its similarities with Javier Cercas’ far more compact Soldiers of Salamis (2001; Santa Evita was first published in 1995). Whether there was direct influence I won’t speculate, but the same slightly neurotic, ambivalent narrator is pulled inexorably, reluctantly into both stories. Both are stories mired in a violent, vivid memory of history, and both thus encourage ambivalence: the accidental moment where a leading fascist was spared death, and the strange indignities to which the body of Eva Perón was subjected after her husband’s first deposition in 1952. Soldiers of Salamis discovers an ending full of internationalism and hope, however, where Santa Evita finds the author finally able to return to Argentina after years of exile, unable, or unwilling, to fully describe the hold that Evita’s story has on him — and on the other subjects of his story — though perhaps it is indescribable, recognised and understood only by the Argentines who lived through the politics of the twentieth century.

It is an interesting story, though not, perhaps a satisfying one. Santa Evita weaves an imagined account of Evita’s last days with the author’s interpretations of newsreel footage and his interviews with figures such as her hairdresser. It also wanders into her past, via the recollections of her mother and fellow actresses, and the lascivious speculations of her political enemies, but its focus is largely on the reception of her corpse by Perónists and by the military following Juan Perón’s flight from Argentina later in the year that she died.

The author retains a sympathy for all the characters who appear in his text, though he describes himself as a distant, unemotive and on occasions cruel researcher, as in the encounter with ‘Irene’. He is perhaps keen to emphasise the journalistic intent that originally prompted his investigations; or perhaps mired in the depression that he claims lifted miraculously upon his decision to write the story down. The sympathetic approach to all the individuals involved, from his depiction of Eva Perón’s last days, to the struggles of the man initially tasked with concealing the embalmed corpse, means that this is not a novel with a particularly strident political message. It explores madnesses and insecurities on all sides, teasing out the human doubts of its subjects, and the inappropriateness of their equally human lack of doubt. Some of Martínez’s ‘revelations’ are shocking — such as all that is inflicted upon the corpse — and others are less so — the proposed reason for the young actress Evita’s mysterious absence from the historical record for a period of eleven months or so will probably surprise no female reader, at least.

A sense of personal dislocation and unease permeates the novel, where description is at its finest in instances such as when a source’s brief flashes of emotion are accompanied by his need to look away from the author, who describes this expression as one in which the subject’s experienced emotion is thought to be the mislaid emotion of some other person, whom he then looks for. The involuntary nature of our feelings and the actions that they induce us to take is a constant here: never investigated directly, nor questioned, but implicitly underlying the inexorable descent into obsession that so many characters in the novel experience.

The story is also one of male possession. Evita’s voice opens its narrative, her dreamy self-reflections as she lies weakening, dying of cancer, but after her death her wishes are denied, she is talked of and talked over and constantly redefined as an object of want by so many others. The way in which her requests are ignored upon her death; the way that her mother gradually loses influence over what is to happen to her daughter’s remains; the fearful helplessness of Colonel Koenig’s wife; of Arancibia’s sister-in-law; the unaffected horror of Irene when informed that she had not had a doll as her childhood companion, but a real, human body; all cry out pitifully from the margins of the novel. As Perón claimed to have made her, so each man who encounters her body after death remakes her in his own imagination, turning the hatred of slurs — Mare — and attempts at distance — Person — into a fierce struggle to ‘tame’ bones and formaldehyde, and the dangerous ideas that live on with her preserved corpse.

Eva Perón died at 33, the same age that Christ was supposed to have died, the same age that medieval representations of the dead aimed to show their subjects. Like all good saints, she must have a martyrdom, only in Santa Evita the deprivations and misunderstandings that martyrs are subjected to occur after her death, to her impassive body. Flowers and candles apparently planted by her supporters, and the scent of lavender from the embalmer’s ointments, are the standard attributes of a saintly corpse. But the removal of a finger, a nick of her ear, a star-shaped incision, and the endless longing hands of a stream of fascinated men are Evita’s trials after death; she is as passive in her ‘sufferings’ as the tortured women of medieval saints’ lives.

The novel offers neither historical fact, nor closure to the reader. Like Soldiers of Salamis, I am most fond of it when the author’s voice is clearest, musing on the nature of truth and fiction and watching, listening to his sources, drawing sad and lonely people with an effective line or two of description, or by recounting a night of conversation between them and the author. Martínez somehow needed to tell this story, but he does not offer a full explanation of why. Prompted to ‘join the cult’ by Rodolfo Walsh, who stayed, and died, for his publications, he does not say whether following the story that he found himself investigating to its end(s) brought him any closure for himself. But he doesn’t really need to say; the loose ends, the blank spaces, are true to both life and to the form of the novel. They leave us space to think in, and they leave the story space to just be, without imposing any trite, moralising conclusions or explanations for the events within it.

I read the translation by Helen Lane from 1996.

Review: Maxïmo Park (The Junction, Cambridge)


“If you could just … just suspend your belief in the Power of ROCK. Just for now …”

Not likely, Paul. It’s been ten years since Maxïmo Park played in Cambridge — I know, I was there — and boy, did Cambridge miss you.

Last time they played Cambridge it was at the Corn Exchange, the venue bands are said to play once on their way up, and once more on their way back down. Well, I like a band that don’t do things by the rules. This audience seemed to be split in even halves: those who were long-time fans, and those who were enjoying their first Maxïmo Park gig. This was only clear because the band asked, though; everyone sang their hearts out to every song, old or new, regardless of how many gigs they’d been to before.

The set list was skewed heavily towards material from the new album, Risk to Exist, and this went down particularly well. The response to songs that have only been available for a little under a month was huge, and the combination of leftwing, compassionate politics, great tunes and sing-along hooks suited Cambridge down to a tee. The singer Paul Smith, introducing ‘Make What You Can’, wondered ‘how deep’ he should go in his explanation of the song. He floundered between disclaimers that he wanted people to interpret it how they wanted, emphasising that this was a rock gig and not a political speech, and yet clearly appreciating Cambridge’s support for the reason the song was written: the valid question — why is our Prime Minister taking support away from those who need it most? It’s okay though, he also talked about how his dancing sometimes got a little bit Axl Rose, so it wasn’t quite a Corbyn rally (Cambridge likes those too, anyway).

The customary energy of their live shows took a few tracks to build, but with the crowd-pleasing ‘Books from Boxes’ behind them momentum grew quickly. I think it was noticeable that the more the crowd responded, the more the band enjoyed themselves, being clearly both exhausted and affected by the cheering at the end of the encore. Their long touring experience showed in the rapport with the crowd and in the determination with which they pushed through a somewhat confused version of the new track ‘Alchemy’, laughing off the ‘variations’ afterwards and soon regaining confidence with another old fan favourite, By the Monument. Honestly, we were eating out of their hands by that point anyway: the response to the band’s gestures, waving for more noise, was vast; there was a lot of clapping along, sometimes band-led, sometimes audience-led; and you could see the pockets of old-timers in the audience by who jabbed the air with a finger on the right lines in ‘Going Missing’ (‘forget it, forget it’, ‘regret it, regret it’) and pressed their palms skyward to apply some pressure…

Although it was a set list that seemed to have been chosen in a hurry (Paul had to check his notes quite a lot at the start), it fitted together really well. The segues from old tracks to new worked well; for anyone who felt a bit leery about the overt politics of ‘Make What You Can’, it was followed by the soothing, needs-no-introduction classic, ‘I Want You to Stay’. ‘Our Velocity’, with the line ‘are you willing to resist / for people you’ve never met?’ also chimed surprisingly well with ‘The Hero’ and other new tracks.

I’ve been so pleasantly surprised each time I’ve been to a Maxïmo gig since I ended a six-year hiatus on seeing them live at the final Split Festival in 2014. The fans that have stuck around, and the new fans that have accumulated long after the heyday of the 2000s takeover of the charts by indie bands, are a devoted and happy bunch; there’s dancing, not shoving (well, not much, anyway…and it depends where in the crowd you are), people take a few pictures and videos, but not so many that you can’t sing and dance around them, and the audience is always a diverse one. The band themselves, sadly now permanently without Archis, always put on a great show, and the dorky excuses Paul makes are as much a part of that as the dancing — like Axl Rose or otherwise…

The set list was an epic twenty tracks, drawn largely from their new album, but including material from their whole back catalogue. It went something like the following, though I may have the order mixed up here and there:

  1. What Did We Do To You To Deserve This? (RTE)
  2. Risk to Exist (RTE)
  3. The National Health (TNH)
  4. Books from Boxes (OEP)
  5. Leave This Island (TMI)
  6. Make What You Can (RTE)
  7. I Want You To Stay (ACT)
  8. Questing, Not Coasting (QTH)
  9. The Undercurrents (TNH)
  10. Work Then Wait (RTE)
  11. The Hero (RTE)
  12. Our Velocity (OEP)
  13. Alchemy (RTE)
  14. By the Monument (OEP)
  15. Going Missing (ACT)
  16. What Equals Love (RTE)
  17. Girls Who Play Guitar (OEP)


  1. Nosebleed (OEP)
  2. Apply Some Pressure (ACT)
  3. Get High (No I Don’t) (RTE)

Key: ACT=A Certain Trigger (2005), OEP=Our Earthly Pleasures (2007), QTH=Quicken the Heart (2009), TNH=The National Health (2012), TMI=Too Much Information (2014), RTE=Risk to Exist (2017).

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (cinema)


Sometimes I find it hard to remember how much I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It’s one of those things (aka a part of the MCU) that, although I am glad people are critical of it, was fairly effectively ruined for me last time I had a tumblr. Yes, Drax has one dumb line. Yes, Rocket’s an asshole about that guy’s leg. These aren’t enough to make me want to write off the movie. One might even argue that they’re in-keeping with both these guys’ characters. Do so if you want; I don’t really care enough. I’m here for: pretty pretty space, the AMAZING supporting cast, the music, and the family themes/character development. And in those respects, volume 2 delivered, even more than volume 1.

I was dubious about the additions to the ensemble going in, and about the tiny cutsey Baby Groot, worrying that characterisation would get swamped and the movie would be aiming to appeal to a much younger average viewer. Although it took a few minutes to properly hit its stride — the opening’s fun, but was Trying Quite Hard — I needn’t have worried. Mantis and Nebula are incorporated successfully into the emotional arcs of the rest of the team, and much to my delight, my surprise favourite from vol. 1, Yondu, got a really great journey.

As usual, the theme is one of found family; all of the Guardians have family issues of one sort or another, and although this movie is centred around the story of Peter’s father, the other characters’ stories are never fully eclipsed by this. Gamora and Nebula finally have a chance to work things out — to an extent — Rocket finds a kindred spirit in Yondu, Drax’s continued mourning is exposed through particularly effective scenes with Mantis. This time, despite the gaping absence of several fridged women — Peter’s mother, Drax’s wife and daughter — the movie works hard to let those who are onscreen — Gamora, Nebula and Mantis in particular, but even the Priestess Ayesha — have their own stories. Splitting the team for part of the movie actually makes this development for effective too, rather than resulting in a focus on one group as opposed to the other.

It’s also a movie I’d love to see on the course list for a ‘psychoanalysis and literature’ module I took a few years ago. We watched Jurassic Park, but Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2 isn’t even subtle about its Freudian influences. Peter’s father is called Ego, for one, and Peter’s struggle to come to terms with his identity, via opposing father figures, manages to be both entertaining and affecting, if oh-so-familiar. Spoilers: (I think there’s something particularly interesting going on in the inversion of Peter’s fantasy view of space, as played out by Ego. The movie has an early reference to Peter’s womanising, reminding us that he’s part of the old fantasy where human males go off travelling in space to make out with all the hot alien chicks. Then we find out his father did that too, in a concerted effort to spread his kind, going on to kill his own offspring when they didn’t live up to his ideals. Peter’s not just participating in the classic sci-fi fantasy, he’s a product of it, and enjoys some of the benefits of being that special human in space still.) End spoilers.

Other things I really appreciated about the movie were: Tommy Two-Lines Flanagan! Living up to the nickname I gave him over ten years ago again… (and providing symmetry with his Gladiator colleague Djimon Hounsou’s role in GotG vol. 1). Did I mention that I love Yondu? Coz I love Yondu. And particularly how the movie doesn’t really excuse his behaviour; he broke the code and he knows it and he doesn’t apologise because he messed up. Similarly, Ego’s moral code isn’t really judged as ‘evil’, just too destructive to be tolerated. Villains are normally the most boring part of a movie for me — and I like it like that, I’m not interested in identifying with them most of the time — but this is a setting that successfully avoids ‘villains’, leaving just enough nuance (or absurdity) in to make it about more than inherent good vs inherent evil.

Also, there’s a satisfying level of meta going on between the seventies/eighties soundtrack and the presence of David Hasselhoff, Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone.

Some scene changes felt rushed, and some dialogue was trying too hard for my tastes, particularly Peter’s references to Cheers. But these were minor points in what was a fun, funny addition to the MCU. Not only did it remind me how excited I am for Thor: Ragnarok, it also put me in the mood to watch some Farscape. Can you imagine the crews meeting? Crichton and Peter’s conflicting cultural reference points, Gamora and Aeryn eye-rolling so hard, Drax and Drogo probably completely misunderstanding each other, and Rocket stealing Rigel’s chair to modify it/for shits and giggles. I hope there’s fic of that somewhere out there. If not: internet, you know what to do.

Review: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (Chris Packham)


Behold, one of my earliest TV memories: Chris Packham, Terry Nutkins and Michaela Strachan, and a very ’90s introduction to the animal world. It began broadcasting about 11 months before I was born, and despite the fact that Wikipedia claims no crossover between Terry and Michaela on the show, this is the only line-up I remember watching. Combined with a very rural childhood, it had me nose-deep in Collins Gem guides, tramping the woods on dawn-chorus walks with my Dad, and picking through owl pellets and feather collections. None of that’s really comparable with Chris Packham’s animal-entrenched life, but that’s why he’s one of the best naturalists, nature presenters and wildlife activists around and I’m not (also because I can’t hold onto my obsessions for that long, they dissipate and form anew too quickly).

Also, you should know that because of this being such a long-standing connection, and because he worked an insane number of Smiths song-titles into his Springwatch presenting, and because Tory twats who hate the BBC like to pick on him at any opportunity, I will judge you on your attitude to Chris Packham. If you don’t like Chris Packham, I don’t much like you. That’s even more true having finally got my hands on the paperback of his sensuous, often brutally frank childhood memoir.


The memoir never once uses the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, which the author was only diagnosed with relatively recently. It just asks you to come along, to see things through his eyes, and to feel what he felt through some of the defining moments of his childhood: moments of intense emotion, of loss, fear, puzzlement, and most of all, of love. His love for animals is as absolute, as unconditional as he sees their love being in return. He knows that others will think it’s strange that he can celebrate this love by taking, piercing and blowing bird’s eggs, by shooting sparrows to feed his pet Kestrel, by collecting dead things to dissect their wings and workings, but he makes no apology for it; he just presents you with his single-minded fascination and with the way he revels in discovery and experience. Words flow across the page, synaesthetic and winding sentences that describe the light and the English countryside in a way that puts you right there. No matter whose perspective he writes from, they all see the countryside as he does: they all experience the living world in the same way, though they may not be able to recognise it.

The narrative swoops from perspective to perspective, first introducing us to the reticent little boy collecting insects through the eyes of the ice-cream seller. It’s such a self-conscious technique, inserting himself into others, imagining how others imagined him, fleshing out their moments in the narrative limelight with details to fit their lives, their position in space and time. But it’s done sensitively, with a careful regard for each person; although most of those whose heads he imagines peering out from are people who showed him sympathy or empathy themselves. The only exception I can think of currently is the school bully, Bazza, and in that instance, Packham’s not so much seeing himself through Barry’s eyes, as imagining Barry hoping to cop a feel of the same pair of tits young Chris himself was interested in. When Barry comes to beat him up, he views Chris from a distance, sees only the lack of reaction. The rawness of feeling that Packham admits to his therapist in between chapters — no, he doesn’t forgive people like Barry. He can’t — is revealed more subtly through the use of these other perspectives. Outsiders like the shell-shocked ‘Tramp’ and the divorcé next-door see the introspective little boy far more clearly than other, equally well-meaning strangers.

The memoir flits back and forth between the sixties and seventies, tied largely together by the story of his time as the trainer of a young Kestrel and by interludes based on the therapy he sought after an attempted suicide. He’s unflinchingly honest throughout, letting the reader in on the necessity of everything he does, whether it’s the absolute, impossible-to-deny-it need he has to take a Kestrel chick, legal permit or not, best interests of the bird or not, or the incident with the fox in the snare, that turns from foolhardy, shockingly brave rescue, to a reluctant, miserable euthanasia.  He’s never knowingly or deliberately cruel, and he’s pragmatic about nature, but humans often are cruel, and when confronted with the preventable cruelty of the two boys smashing tadpoles with a hammer, he’s furious, white-hot with anger and sadness, and it’s palpable in the prose that even the memory stirs echoes of that strength of feeling.

Packham also turns a critical eye on the War generation’s buttoned-up attitudes to emotions, to pain and to sex. Much is not explained; much more is not discussed; and the things that go untalked about weigh heavy throughout his childhood. The disastrous response (lack of response) to the death of his Kestrel (a far more prosaic, lingering death than that suffered by Kes‘ bird) actually sends the boy into a spell of muteness: post-traumatic stress disorder repeatedly ignored by his parents. But again, his empathy wins through, self-taught though it may be; despite this, and despite their blazing rows and eventual separation, he’s in awe of both of his parents and all they did for him. But the childish bewilderment, the search for guidance through the most deeply-felt hurt he’d ever experienced, remains heartbreaking.

The more recent loss, the one that drove him to take far too many pills — and, thankfully, not enough pills — is never named. His eloquent rebuttal to his therapist’s question (“what about your family?”) is magnificent, and I hope that those inclined to ask questions like that of suicide survivors (and of those who don’t survive) read this passage and take a long hard look at themselves:

Everyone says that suicide is selfish. How fucking stupid. Selfishness would only be apparent if you could be conscious of your actions’ effect on others. But there are no fucking others, they are not there. There is nothing there … but you and a fucking, great, hopeless vacuum.

If that resonates please get in touch with the Samaritans.

Just as the loss of an animal affects him greatly, so he then describes the impossibility of contemplating the same thing when his other animals are in the house: the devoted, uncomplicated love of his dogs means that he can’t make a second attempt.

For all the fact that ‘if not fully constructed his ability to empathise has been learned’, it’s Packham who displays the most empathy in this memoir. He notes that

Back then I thought they were too cowardly to think deeply about themselves, that they chose to protect themselves by loving themselves and their world, but now I know they had no more choice than I did, we’re just wired differently, different parts of our brain are a bit more developed than the others. They’re out, I’m in … it’s the way it is.

But by constantly looking inwards, pouring the depth of his feelings onto the page, he reveals a desire to understand others that lingers, and that is rooted in the curiosity and observation that drives his engagement with nature. It’s often more wry, aloof, but it’s a knowing take on humankind nonetheless. Shades of that Munch quote here again.

Despite his fears (‘pure love, immaculate, perfect love, is the thing that is there waiting to destroy you. Because it becomes all of you and when it’s gone there is absolutely nothing left…’), there is so much love, and so much of his vivid, poetic view of the world in this book, that all I can think of at the end is Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb:

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.