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Vaulting ambition March 3, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, childhood, memories.
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An alternative title for this post: Why Gymnastics Is Exactly Like An MFA Course (Sort of. Mostly).

Yes, this is another response to that article by (thankfully, former) MFA professor Ryan Boudinot. See also Foz Meadows, Laura Lam and Chuck Wendig for some further context. At first glance, I might seem an odd person to be adding my voice to the mix. I’ve never done an MFA (and don’t plan to), I’m not a writer of fiction and have no intention of ever being one in the future.

However, I was a gymnast for ten years.

You might be forgiven for wondering what the hell that has to do with Ryan Boudinot, creative writing courses or this whole kerfuffle, but allow me to explain. Gymnastics left me with a collection of bizarre anecdotes, excellent time-management skills, very good balance in certain contexts, and messed up feet and ankles. It also provided me with a clear example of something many people – including, it seems, Ryan Boudinot – fail to understand: nobody is born so talented at a skill that they cannot improve with practice and teaching. The myth that innate talent is enough to get someone awards, acclaim and success is profoundly damaging. It gets applied to creative pursuits all the time, but they are skills like any other, and if I extend it to gymnastics, the ridiculousness of the myth becomes apparent.

I started gymnastics when I was seven years old, encouraged by my mother, who had noticed that I seemed to spend every waking moment climbing trees, turning cartwheels and doing handstands against the walls of buildings. My initial classes were an hour a week, squeezed in on Saturday mornings after swimming lessons, and their aim was simply to get the children who attended moving, building up a collection of skills of increasing difficulty. By the time I was seventeen, I was training twelve hours a week, in three four-hour sessions which began with an hour of strength and conditioning, followed by three hours spent practicing the same skills again and again until they were consistently perfect, stringing the skills together into routines and repeating those routines until they could be performed with the illusion of effortlessness. The goal of all this was to perform those routines in annual regional and state-level competitions, and hopefully get good scores and win lots of medals.

I started with what might be considered the baseline requirements to get by as a gymnast: I was small, I was slim, I was able-bodied and physically fit. I was at a disadvantage in that I hadn’t started as a four-year-old, and because I was extremely inflexible. In other words, the potential was there.

But without lessons and training I wouldn’t have got anywhere: I would have been just another child turning cartwheels on the school playground. I got better because I practiced, and I got better because of teaching. Whether it was for one hour a week or twelve, my execution of various skills got better through repetition, and the difficulty of those skills increased over time because I was able to build on the basics I’d learnt to begin with and apply the same principles to more complex skills or combinations of skills. And I was able to improve because my coaches knew what to do to make me better.

I had multiple coaches over the years, but the best ones combined excellent communication (that is, they were able to convey with words what I needed to do with my body to make a routine look effortless) with a good feel for each of their coaching charges’ strengths and weaknesses, ensuring that we didn’t just work on the apparatus we liked or the skills that came easily to us, and creating routines for us that covered up areas of weaknesses and emphasised areas of strength. (For example, my lack of flexibility made certain common elements of floor routines really difficult and inelegant for me, so my coaches substituted them with moves which highlighted my upper-body strength.) And with coaching and practice, I got better every year: stronger, with the ability to do harder skills, and a more intuitive sense of what to do with my body if I wanted it to tumble, flip, twirl or leap in a specific direction. In my first ever competition I leapt up onto the beam, promptly fell off, climbed back on, only to lose my balance and fall off again. By the time I quit, I was learning how to do backflips on that same apparatus. I am profoundly grateful to the series of patient, perceptive coaches whose hard work helped to get me to that point.

I was never going to set the world on fire as a gymnast. I would never compete in the Olympics – the height of my ambition was a handful of apparatus medals at the annual regional competition. But I learnt a really useful lesson at a very early age: with practice and, crucially, proper training and support, I could start as an absolute beginner at something and show constant, steady improvement over a month, a year, or a decade. My point in all this is not to demonstrate that every able-bodied child who starts young enough is born with the talent to become an world champion gymnast. My point is that practice, repetition, and, above all, the support of teachers will lead to improvement in just about any skill. And writing is a skill like any other.

Nobody springs from the womb as a fully-formed, award-winning fiction writer. Writing is a skill that needs to be taught. It is improved by practice, and by working with teachers who can recognise areas of strength and weakness. Bestselling, award-winning novels don’t just fall out of a writer’s brain and onto the keyboard. They are honed and shaped by critique and training. Maybe that training takes the form of an MFA. Maybe it doesn’t – maybe a writing workshop, writers’ group or critique partner is more your style. And maybe you still won’t win awards or sell millions of copies of your novel, but your writing will be better. I’m tired of this almost mystical reverence for creative endeavours, whether music, fiction-writing or visual art. It’s a lazy justification for avoiding collaboration, training or criticism of your work. No, we do not start on equal footing when it comes to writing, even when you take away structural inequalities such as wealth, gender, race, disability and so on. As with any other skill, some people are going to find writing easier, some are going to find it more fun, and some might have a better sense of where the money and/or acclaim lies than others. But the fact remains that anyone who writes is going to get better through a combination of practice and the support of good teaching. I learnt that by doing gymnastics as a child and teenager. It’s a shame Ryan Boudinot didn’t get that same teaching.

Stepping into the same river twice June 16, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, films, memories, meta, television.
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I am 28 years old. I have spent most of my adult life as a student. I only moved out of home five years ago, and I only moved out of sharehouses and student accommodation nine months ago. I have a long-term partner, but no children. All this is relevant.

I was thinking about stories, and how important age and circumstances are in determining meaning and how you react to them. There are some stories I can come back to time and time again, and get different things out of them every time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like that for me. I’ve been watching and rewatching it since I was twelve years old, and it means something different every single time. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is another story like that for me. Each time I rewatch it, I feel I’ve barely scratched its surface. It reveals its secrets so slowly. I’m somewhat afraid to reread His Dark Materials in case it stops being this kind of story to me. It meant so much to me, it gave so much to me that for it to stop meaning and giving would be unbearable.

There are other stories which I think gain something from being reread with adult eyes. The young-adult literature of Victor Kelleher falls into this category. I first read his work as an eleven-year-old, and continued revisiting it throughout my teenage years, but the true horror and weight of what he was saying doesn’t really hit home until you’ve reached adulthood and had some of your illusions shattered. There are other stories which mattered as much to me as Kelleher’s when I was a child and a teenager – the works of Gillian Rubinstein, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – but for which rereading provokes only nostalgia and the restored memory of what it felt like to be fifteen, and burning with outrage, passionately emoting and dreaming fervently. The stories remain wonderful, but they offer me no new truths in adulthood, only a window into the child I used to be. This is of value, of course, but it’s not the same thing. The vast majority of works aimed at children and teenagers that I’ve enjoyed and read or watched in adulthood evoke much the same feelings.

I grew up watching the films of the Marx Brothers (I first watched Duck Soup in a cinema when I was three years old), and I always found them hilarious. What I didn’t notice until I was well into adulthood was the deep undercurrent of sadness and alienation running through them, and the tendency for Groucho, Chico and Harpo to make self-deprecating jokes, to make themselves figures of fun, to paint themselves as mercenary, petty criminals in order to get in first before someone else said the same things. There’s a defensiveness to all their quips, a brittle, knowing edge to all their humour that you only see when you’re older, and when you know more about the history of immigration to the US.

And then there are the texts for which meaning and enjoyment is, I think, contextual. I read Wuthering Heights as a fourteen-year-old and thought it was a tragic love story. I read it again at twenty-two, and thought it was a horror story, a Greek myth about gods and mortals. At eighteen, when I went through a phase of reading Russian literature in translation, Tolstoy moved me to rapturous tears, while Dostoevsky appalled and repelled me. Isobelle Carmody’s works can only truly be appreciated by teenagers. To an adult, they are dangerously naïve and lack any kind of nuance. At 28, my favourite book of Jane Austen’s is Persuasion, while at sixteen I would have said Pride and Prejudice. When I was fourteen, people told me I would cry my eyes out over the ending of Casablanca, but I was unmoved. My reaction? I hated Rick, swooned over Victor Laszlo (I was going through a bit of a thing for revolutionaries and resistance fighters) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. If I am earnest now, I was a million times worse then. But I suspect, were I to watch the film again, my reaction might be very different. At fourteen, I read The Mill on the Floss and felt nothing. At twenty, I read Daniel Deronda and felt profoundly moved.

I remember my mother telling me, when I was a passionate armchair revolutionary in high school, that as an adult I would find repellent the Holocaust stories, tales about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict that I pored over as a teenager. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I don’t want to look any more. I used to love uncompromising rebels, and now I prefer diplomats and passive resistance.

I don’t think all of this is down to age, in and of itself. Taste plays a role, as does environment, and the ethos of the age in which you grew up and which informed your tastes. My mother, for example, loves Charles Dickens and finds Zadie Smith contrived and emotionless. I find Dickens cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and hypocritical, while Zadie Smith evokes feelings of awe and floods of tears in me. I don’t think baby boomers will uniformly share her views, no more than I think Gen Y people will uniformly share mine, but I suspect our respective generations may have affected our tastes to some extent. (That said, my father loves Zadie Smith and was, indeed, the one to introduce me to her work.)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite Shakespeare play has been The Tempest. I suspect I see it with different eyes than the first time I encountered it as a twelve-year-old watching the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production. And I suspect it will mean something very different when I am an old woman. My point in all of this is that although it is possible to step in the same river twice, it is not possible to do so for every river. Some stories are static, and can mean only one thing at one particular age in one particular place. And some others are always changing, and go on and on forever.

Liebster Award November 26, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, life, memories.
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I was nominated for a Liebster Award. Says Catie, who nominated me, the Liebster Award is a meme for small blogs (with under 200 followers) where you answer 7 questions and then ask a new set of 7 questions to 7 people. I’m not going to tag other people, but I will answer the questions provided by Catie. And they are:

1. Have you ever read a book that changed your life, or your reading habits?
A book, or rather series of books, did both of those things – at the same time. Most of you probably know that I’m going to say the His Dark Materials trilogy, and you’ll probably know why. But to recap:

When I first read HDM, it pushed my reading habits in a much more fantasy-oriented direction than previously. This led, firstly, towards me developing an interest in medieval literature, which ultimately led to me becoming a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, meeting an amazing group of friends, and my current boyfriend, and deciding to, if at all possible, live in Europe for the remainder of my life.

Secondly, HDM got me a career as a newspaper book-reviewer! When I was 16, I read what I considered to be a very poor review of the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass. I wrote the reviewer – the children’s books editor at The Sydney Morning Herald – a very snotty letter accusing her of not reading the book before she reviewed it. Rather than throwing my letter in the bin, she offerred me the opportunity to write my own review. This led to a ten-year career writing reviews and interviewing authors for various Australian newspapers.

Finally, HDM saved me, because it introduced me to the people at bridgetothestars.net at a very low point in my life. Those people were there for me when no one else was, and I’ve met so many people I love through that site. btts introduced me to the best friend I will ever have, a woman I consider to be my fourth sister. More broadly, btts was my introduction to online fandom and online friendships and community more broadly, and it remains my gold standard in all such matters, a model of how to do fandom and do friendship right.

I will never stop being thankful to His Dark Materials. It changed my life in such profound ways.

2. If you could recommend one book to the world, what would it be?
To be honest, I’d like to recommend the entire corpus of Victor Kelleher novels, but if I had to select just one, I’d say The Beast of Heaven, which is a deeply unsettling, remorseless and transcendentally beautiful exploration of what it means to be conscious and human. I doubt I will ever read another book more perfect than that. It encapsulates my views on human nature, morality, history and the future completely.

3. Do you read when you’re out and about or just at home?
Obviously I read a lot for my PhD, so by definition I read while I’m out and about – in libraries. I also read for pleasure when I’m out and about. I tend to carry novels with me everywhere, and my favourite thing to do is sit alone in cafes and read.

4. Is there any genre that you don’t read, and why? Or do you only read one particular type of book?
I pretty much read everything, although I tend to steer clear of epic or heroic fantasy written by men. Modernist literature isn’t my cup of tea either, although I’ve enjoyed books by Faulkner and some poetry written during this time period.

5. What is the first book that you remember reading?
The first novel I remember reading was Rainstones by Jackie French. It’s not actually a novel, but rather a book of short stories, but I was immensely proud of myself at the time for being able to read a ‘chapter book’. I’d obviously read picture books before then, and had lots of books read to me by my mother, but I don’t remember the first.

6. What is the last book that you read that was outside your comfort zone?
I read a book of crime stories in German over the (northern) summer, and that was out of my comfort zone because I’m still not completely fluent at reading in German. But it was good to push myself.

7. If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why?
This question makes me so uncomfortable and upset! It reminds me of this neo-Victorian novel I read a few years ago, which has a scene where one character asks the (bookish) protagonist to imagine a scenario where every copy of the great works of the literary canon are being drawn along a conveyor belt into a furnace. The protagonist has a gun. If she shoots and kills a human being, the conveyor belt stops. Reading it, I started to hyperventilate. Is one human life worth more than the Western literary canon? It is unbearable to be forced to confront that question.

In light of that anecdote, I think I’d have to say the complete works of William Shakespeare should be saved. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of canon – any canon besides a personal canon, that is – and yet I love the plays of Shakespeare and can see how they have influenced so much writing in English and say such interesting things about humanity. And on a more political level, I love how the foundation of the English literary canon is a collaborative effort of people who stood somewhat outside the boundaries of ordinary society, and its prime mover was an aspirational, lower middle-class man who somehow managed to educate himself and say such clever things. It appeals to my socialism and belief in the power of education.

I’m not going to tag anyone, but if you’d like to join in, consider yourselves tagged. These are my seven questions:

1. How have your reading tastes changed in the past ten years? In the past five?
2. Do you read book reviews? Do you think they influence your reading habits?
3. What is your opinion of sites such as Goodreads and reviews on Amazon?
4. Do you note down quotes from books or poetry? What is a quote that means a lot to you?
5. Which fictional character did you identify with as a child or teenager? Looking back, do you think that identification was accurate?
6. What is the most important thing you learnt from a work of fiction?
7. And I’d also like an answer to the same question I was asked: in a Fahrenheit 451 scenario, which book would you save?

Dystopiana*, Australiana** January 25, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, life, memories, reviews.
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I’ve always found it a combination of surprising and amusing when people talk about the recent dystopian YA boom as if it’s a new thing, as if Suzanne Collins plucked The Hunger Games out of the (dystopia-free) ether and opened the floodgates to a host of imitators. (Well, that’s sort of what happened, but that’s beside the point.) Growing up in Australia in the 90s, basically everything I read was dystopian, before I even knew what the word ‘dystopian’ meant.

The first author I got into in a major way (and who, indeed, has the dubious honour of writing the first novel-length book I ever read) was Jackie French, whose hippie-like existence in a small town near Braidwood informed her futuristic science-fiction novels for children. While she’s better known for other works, at age seven, my favourite books of hers were a five-part series, beginning with Music From the Sea, set in an Australia so parched by the sun that humans have become nocturnal and are living a lifestyle reminiscent of early farming/gathering societies. That somewhat gentle introduction to the ‘harsh Australian weather’ subgenre of dystopian literature led me to darker fare that mixed its narratives of personal and communal heroism with pointedly political calls to arms.

John Marsden’s Tomorrow series is the environmental-political Australian dystopian series par excellence. Beginning with a bang with Tomorrow, When the War Began (a title which implies that its story could happen on any particular tomorrow), this seven-book series follows the adventures of a group of rural Australian teenagers who return from a camping holiday in the bush to find that the country has been invaded, their hometown was the focal point of the invasion, and everyone they love has been rounded up and imprisoned in the local showground. The teenagers retreat to the bush and become a guerrilla resistance force, all the while agonising over whether their actions are just. Written against the backdrop of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, this series brought home the realities of war to an entire generation of Australian teenagers more used to thinking of conflict as something that happened ‘over there’.

I actually don’t think that the Tomorrow series is the best of 90s Australian dystopian YA fiction, although it has great emotional resonance and Marsden’s evocation of the Australian landscape, and the unease most Australians feel within it, is spot on. But the later novels lack the believability that made the first few so powerful, and an ill-advised spin-off trilogy means the series ends, if not with a whimper, not really with a bang either.

No, in my opinion, there is a three-way tie for the best stories of this genre between the works of Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubinstein and one particular novel of Ruth Park’s.

Most Australians of my generation will be familiar with at least one book by Kelleher, Taronga, as it was widely studied in high school during our teenage years, but I’ve always felt Kelleher was tragically unrecognised. His trilogy beginning with Parkland, which I reviewed here a while back, is both a Cassandra-like warning and a hopeful shout of encouragement. In each book, in different ways, he wipes the slate clean, so to speak, recreating subtly different Gardens of Eden to see if, once tempted with consciousness, human nature could ever lead us anywhere other than destruction.

Gillian Rubinstein is also concerned with human nature in two very good series of hers, the Galax-Arena series and the Space Demons trilogy. I have blogged about Galax-Arena in relation to The Hunger Games already, so suffice it to say that the series is, at its heart, about the exploitation of (often poor, always defenseless) children at the hands of (often wealthy, always privileged) adults, and can be read as a metaphor for the way First World countries can only ‘live’ as well as they do by (figuratively) killing the Third World.

The Space Demons trilogy is a little different, because it uses its broader dystopian concerns as a backdrop on which to set four or five parallel coming-of-age narratives. Four (and later more) young people find themselves sucked into the virtual world of their computer games (and, in Shinkei, the third book, of cyberspace), within which they must resolve their numerous personal issues, and, as becomes increasingly apparent, the problems that beset the world. The final book reads like an idealistic call to arms, a plea to remember dreams in the face of privilege, cynicism, exploitation and fanaticism, and is one of the best intertwinings of the personal with the political that I have ever encountered.

Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif makes it onto this list simply because its dystopian nature isn’t immediately apparent, and the way it sneaks up on you is absolutely terrifying. You think you’re reading a fantasy book about family tensions, parental expectation and an island paradise populated by real-life mermaids, and then Park will give a throwaway reference to the characters having never seen a butterfly or a certain breed of animal because they’re extinct. It’s chilling.

Why, then, were Australian YA authors rushing down the dystopian road a good two decades before their (mainly American) counterparts? I have several theories, but what I’ve always felt was the mostly likely cause is the intersection of Australia’s bizarre geography and bizarre history and social mythology (mythology in the sense of stories people tell about themselves).

Australians cannot quite make up their minds about these things. On the one hand, there’s this weird sort of pride in the harshness of our landscape, and on the other, there’s the fact that very few Australians actually live in it. Australians, for the most part, cling desperately to the coastal cities, and yet there’s this constant awareness that just around the corner, there’s this vast, parched desert or dry bushland just waiting to be set on fire and burn your house to the ground. As an Australian, the recent climate change debate has always struck me as very odd because, well, if we were talking about global warming in my first grade class in 1991 and the salinity problems of the Murray-Darling basin in my fifth grade class in 1995, and the hole in the ozone layer since forever, it’s not as if suddenly clued-in politicians have only just become aware of it.

Couple this anxiety about the physical features of the land with a general sense of anxiety about the location of the land itself and about one’s place in it (and by this I mean that a dominant strand of the Australian mythos has always been an uncertainty about where and what Australia actually is***) and you get this narrative of discomfort and unease. Australian literature, by and large, does not feature people ‘lighting out for the territories’ in search of freedom and prosperity. Instead, one heads off into a hostile wilderness where general weirdness goes on.****

All this combined to make Australia a fruitful breeding ground for dystopian literature. When these novelists wanted to play around with their fears for the future, their belief in multiculturalism or political anxieties, the Australian experience provided a physical and mythological backdrop for the stories that arose. It would be wonderful if the new dystopian craze introduced these wonderful works to a wider audience.

__________________
* I know that’s not how you decline Greek.
** Also, this is not about Mad Max.
*** As demonstrated by the common use of ‘the West’ to describe a group of nations of which (usually Anglo, almost always white) Australians see themselves as part, despite the fact that the only place to which Australia is west is New Zealand.
**** Think Picnic At Hanging Rock. Think Walkabout.***** This is why the Tomorrow series is so powerful, because the civilised space of hearth and home has been rendered dangerous, and the story’s heroes find the normally hostile wilderness a welcoming haven.
***** This is, obviously, a literary trope mainly employed by white (usually Anglo) Australians, and I think stems from a sense of guilt at what was done to the indigenous inhabitants of the land which Australian culture (until very recently) felt profoundly uneasy examining in an open way. And so it was explored in this slantwise manner.

‘Oh, this book. Oh, my HEART.’ May 12, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
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This was my involuntary response after (and during) reading Savage City, the third book in Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy. I read the book with a kind of desperate, yearning hunger. I’d been waiting for it for several years, I loved its characters (in particular, its heroine, fierce, introverted, determined Una), and I couldn’t bear not knowing how things would end.

The last time I read a book like that, I was 22, and it was the final Harry Potter book. I think this is significant, because the last time before that, I would’ve been in high school, reading Darksong, the follow-up to Isobelle Carmody’s Darkfall. And, indeed, this was the way I read all my favourite books, as a child and teenager.

I devoured them, much the same way as Sara Crewe (a childhood heroine) is said to ‘devour books’ in A Little Princess. Their characters were as real, as close to me, as real people. Their lives mattered as much or more. I felt every blow that landed upon them, and I wanted their happiness with a fierceness that I couldn’t even believe I was capable of feeling. When I read those books, curled up in the wing chair in the living room, my feet resting on the coffee table, as a child and teenager in Canberra, I was oblivious to everything else, as my family will attest. I didn’t hear when people spoke to me. I didn’t notice when the natural light disappeared. My heart-rate increased. My mouth was dry. I was terrified for the characters.

I’m so much more detached these days. Oh, I still enjoy books, and I still find books that I love, but it is a different kind of love, a different kind of enjoyment. Less emotional investment and identification, more literary analysis and serenity. More thinking, less feeling.

I cannot regret these changes. They snuck up on me as quietly and imperceptibly as the day I looked at my old dolls and realised I no longer knew how to play. That girl, who cried for three days without stopping upon reading the ending of The Amber Spyglass, who rewrote Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles because she couldn’t bear not knowing what happened to Pagan, who finished the sixth Harry Potter book and then sat on the floor, literally beating her fists on the floorboards, begging her sister and mother to finish the book so she could talk to someone, anyone, about what had just happened, she is both me, and not me. I lived like that, I felt like that, it shaped me and strengthened me and taught me.

She was me, she is me, and I love her. But she is mostly gone.

And that is why I am so grateful to Romanitas, and to Sophia McDougall. She has written something that allowed me to get back, if only for a few hours, to that place, to that girl, once more. It was wonderful. It was perfect. It could never have been any other way. But it was exhausting. Loving in such a fierce, desperate, focused way, caring that much, feeling that much – I honestly don’t know how I did it.

The wardrobe in the Retiring Room January 22, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
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People often talk about ‘gateway drugs’, lighter or less-extreme substances that introduce people into the world of addiction. I’ve noticed, in my case at least, a similar trend with literary genres. I always tend to come to a new genre of literature with preconceived ideas about it, and strong opinions as to whether I will enjoy reading it or not. Then I get my ‘gateway novel’, and I’m an instant convert. I want to talk about my ‘gateway fantasy novel’.

As everyone who’s ever spoken to me or read this blog knows, I am deeply, deeply obsessed with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and credit it with causing just about everything that is good in my life. You may know that it was this series that was responsible for my career as a newspaper reviewer, and (indirectly) my presence as a PhD student at Cambridge. You may not know, however, that I consider it my ‘gateway fantasy series’.

I was given a copy of the first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights, for my 13th birthday in late 1997. It formed part of a large collection of books that I’d been given for Christmas and my birthday by my mother. She always gave me books, usually after a year of scouring review pages of newspapers and literary magazines and keeping track of things that looked well-written and interesting. At this point, I was a fairly omnivorous reader. I had read fantasy novels (most notably those written by Australian YA geniuses Victor Kelleher and Gillian Rubinstein) but I didn’t really notice genre, only quality and personal resonance. My favourite books were all historical novels: A Little Princess, The Girls in the Velvet Frame, Of Nightingales That Weep and the Pagan Chronicles.

I took Northern Lights with me down the South Coast when my dad took my sister and me there for a week-long holiday in late December. I was not too impressed with it, judging it solely on its cover. ‘I don’t like books about animals,’ I thought, and read every other book I’d brought. Two days into the holiday, I was whining to my sister that I ‘had nothing to read’.

‘Why don’t you read this?’, she asked, gesturing at Northern Lights. (I should add that she had not read it herself. She was merely exasperated with my complaints.) With trepidation, I opened it and read the first page. Within two paragraphs, I was hooked. I read the whole book in one day, and when I finished, I simply flipped back to the beginning and began to read it again. After my second read-through, I was so overwhelmed by the themes my 13-year-old brain was only just beginning to comprehend that I had to phone up my mother and rave at her for hours. (As a child and teenager, my poor mother was the unfortunate recipient of many of my outpourings of literary enthusiasm. I would rehash the plot of a book, rhapsodise about its amazing themes and babble about how it related to my own life.)

Thus began a lifelong love affair with (good quality, for the most part) fantasy literature. After Northern Lights I deliberately sought out the otherworldly and fantastical, and although it would take another 10 years before a book left me that overwhelmed (American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 2008), I haven’t regretted a minute of it. My reading diet is slightly too imbalanced in the fantasy area, despite desultory, half-hearted efforts on my part to remedy this. I followed Lyra into the wardrobe in the Jordan College Retiring Room in 1997, and I found a world of inexhaustible wonder.

Did any of my readers have similarly transformative ‘gateway’ experiences? (Not necessarily with fantasy novels, but just with some kind of text?)

Book learning November 19, 2009

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The only wars my family waged were with pen and paper.

Madhur Jaffrey, Seasons of Splendour.

As someone who lives a little too vicariously through books (and the occasional film or television series), the idea that a person might fight his or her battles on the page really resonates with me. For me, books have always provided if not guidance then at least aspirations. For almost as long as I can remember reading, I have latched on to particular characters and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to emulate them. There have been a lot of articles and posts recently about female role-models in literature (prompted in part by the upcoming release of the New Moon film and the inevitable bout of hand-wringing about the message Bella Swan sends to impressionable young women) and this post is prompted, in part, by these articles. I’ll do a links round-up over at Livejournal so you can see the sorts of things that are being said, if you’re interested.

I’m quite proud of my literary role models, on the whole.

The first character I can remember pretending to be, was, fittingly, Sara Crewe from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (I had spent many years pretending to be fairytale princesses before that, but I choose to ignore that as I feel my identification with these princesses was more due to the fact that they wore pretty dresses and jewellery.) For those of you not familiar with the character, Sara is the daughter of an English soldier who lives in India as part of the colonial administration. She grows up pampered in a London boarding school run by the cartoonishly vile Miss Minchin, until her father’s death, which leaves her penniless. Miss Minchin, who spoiled Sara because she hoped to get rewarded by the wealthy Captain Crewe, finds herself responsible for a girl she detests. Overnight, Sara’s life changes. Instead of being the favoured student at the school, she is now a drudge teaching the younger students. She has to move out of her luxurious rooms into a cold attic, eating scraps where before she had dined on delicacies.

What I loved about Sara was not so much the grace with which she endured this change in circumstances but the way she chose to endure them. You see, Sara was a reader. (‘She doesn’t just read books, Miss Minchin, she devours them,’ her father says.) More importantly, she was a storyteller. The thing that kept me covering wooden crates with red crepe paper (to make them look like Sara’s ‘battered red footstool’) and drawing fireplaces on bits of paper in order to stick them on my wall to recreate Sara’s attic bedroom was the power of Sara’s imagination. ‘Suppose,’, she would say, meaning, ‘Imagine something better than here’.

A Little Princess was an early lesson for me in the power of the imagination to overcome the most horrendous circumstances. The book articulated something I’d only just begun to understand: that books offered readers another, infinitely more wonderful world.

The next book to set my imagination on fire to such an extent was Adèle Geras’ wonderful The Girls in the Velvet Frame. What, you might ask, did a story about five Jewish sisters growing up poor in pre-Israel Jerusalem have to do with a seven-year-old middle-class Canberran in the early 90s? For me, it was two things: the warmth of the sisters’ relationship (and their relationships with their widowed mother Sarah and unmarried, ageing aunt Mimi), and the perfection of Geras’ characterisation.

I loved the matriarchal world of the Bernstein sisters, as I saw (and valued) a similar quality in my own family (which is made up of very strong women with very close relationships). And I loved, in particular, two of the sisters: dreamy Naomi, who saw the world through rose-coloured glasses and used storytelling to occupy her two younger sisters, and practical, cynical Chava (‘I always expect bad things to happen, because then bad things don’t disappoint me and the good things come as a nice surprise’). There’s a lot of Naomi and Chava in me, and there is a lot of stubborn, determined Dvora in my younger sister Mimi. I recognised this even then, and I identified passionately with Geras’ characters.

When I was ten, along came one character who would blow them all away with sheer awesomeness. I’m referring, of course, to Pagan Kidrouk, from Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles. I read these books initially as I was invited to a talk given by Jinks at the sadly now defunct Griffith Library, and I fell in love with the snarky, sarcastic, scarily intelligent hero. It’s been a life-long love affair: if Pagan were to walk out of the pages of the books today, I would follow him to the ends of the earth, even if all he did was make disparaging remarks about my intelligence and rage at the stupidity of mankind.

Part of the appeal of Pagan lay in his identity as a literate intellectual in a largely illiterate, anti-intellectual world (the books are set during the Third Crusades). He was irresolutely bookish, with a rich, if angry, intellectual life going on in his head. He has always appealed to my book snobbery, which in my preteen days was even more fierce than it is today. I read, therefore I am would’ve been my motto if I’d heard of Descartes. Pagan made even the illiterate characters recognise the value of reading: Lord Roland, the knight whom Pagan serves, remarks (giving me a quote that has always resonated with me), ‘People who read are always like you. You can’t just tell them, you have to tell them why.’ I swooned, and I’m still swooning today.

The Tomorrow series by John Marsden also provided me with a set of inspirational characters. After briefly cheating on Pagan with Lee (haha), I settled down into a more sedate appreciation of this classic Australian series. I honestly think it was one of the most important cultural artefacts of my generation. For about five years, everyone was reading these books. When a new one came out, we’d all be discussing them on the playground, speculating about who would live and who would die. They were, for my generation, bigger than Harry Potter, and for that they’ll always have a special place in my heart: although I loved being a reader because it set me apart, I also enjoyed it when my classmates and friends read so that we could discuss books.

I also adored the characters because they rang so true. Not one of them is a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out placed in the book as a mouthpiece for Marsden’s views (which happens so often in so many YA books). Oh, sure, it was very clear what Marsden’s views were, but he let them seep through organically, whispering at the margins of one of the most gripping plots I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Marsden’s teenage characters, from Ellie the tomboyish, self-reliant narrator to Fi the sheltered princess, from Robyn the pacifist Christian to Lee the depressed, revenge-obsessed artist, taught me how to be brave. They taught me that war was hell and that I had a moral obligation to do all that I could to prevent it, and they taught me that teenagers were the most powerful, most adaptable, most resilient and most resourceful creatures on the planet.

The next author to play such a significant role in my moral and intellectual development was the wonderful, eloquent, word-weaving Philip Pullman. He gave me such great gifts: the character Lyra, from his His Dark Materials series, who is probably my favourite fictional heroine, and is definitely the most heartbreakingly human character ever to stalk the pages of a book, and the book The Tiger In the Well, which gave me a speech which has informed my political beliefs to this day. These books didn’t exactly change my beliefs (I was an atheist already, I was in favour of knowledge and consciousness and life, I was a social democrat, I was appalled by unchecked capitalism) so much as confirm them and articulate them in a way that I could not have done myself. No books have ever meant more to me than His Dark Materials and nothing has ever had, or will ever have, such a profound effect on my life.

In His Dark Materials, the idea that a very small event has the potential to create millions and millions of universes is a crucial theme. Well, the fact that my sister overheard me complaining about lack of books (I was put off by the cover of Northern Lights, which had animals on it: I’ve never been particularly interested in stories about animals) and forced Northern Lights into my hands utterly changed my life. I would not be at Cambridge without Philip Pullman.

There are several other book, film and television characters who are important to me: Amelie from the movie Amelie (who gave me unrealistic expectations about life, but introduced me to the joys of quirkiness and serendipity), Sulien ap Gwien from Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga (who showed me that one could have a fulfilled life without romantic realitionships), Una from Jo Walton’s Romanitas series (whose intense introversion and observation of other people is something with which I identity strongly) and the characters in Joss Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (who taught me that the family that you choose for yourself, united, can never be defeated, and that misfits can save the world).

These characters are in some ways more important to me than the themes of the texts in which they appear. As I took on all these characters and integrated them into my identity, they ceased to be the creations of their respective authors and became something different. I hesitate to say that they taught me how to be, since of course I am not as stoic as Sara Crewe, as resilient as Naomi and Dvora Bernstein, as intelligent as Pagan Kidrouk, as brave as the teenagers in the Tomorrow series or as all-around awesome as Lyra. I don’t have the courage of my convictions of Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, I don’t brighten the lives of those around me as much as Amelie Poulain, I’m not as loyal as Sulien, I’m not as determined as Una and I’m not as good a friend as the characters in Joss Whedon’s shows. But all these characters taught me who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to live. Although I do not live up to their standards, that I value these standards says something essential about my identity.

Same, same but different October 28, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in life, memories, university.
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My first PhD year has begun not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a series of small volcanoes. It seems everything that could go wrong went wrong.

First up was a housing crisis. As I was not sure until mid-August that I had the funding to continue with my PhD, I had given up my old lease, thinking to save money. This, of course, required me to flit between London and Cambridge, from friends’ couch to spare bedroom to floor, in a rather chaotic, peripatetic manner. This caused all kinds of problems, ranging from living out of a suitcase, wearing the same four outfits over and over again, to getting on the bad side of college and being woken in the middle of the night by angry porters.

Almost as soon as I had my own roof over my head, I had a computer crisis. My college, until last year, did not require Mac users to run a virus scan in order to use the college network. This year, all that changed, and I was forced to suffer the indignity of installing McAfee antivirus software on my poor computer. Bernard, my computer, liked it no better than I did. The internet slowed to a dial-up speed crawl, and constantly froze. After several hysterical conversations with both my college tutor and my supervisor (who was so outraged she considered forcing college to pay for a new computer), I got one of the local tech-heads to fix Bernard for me. Everything’s working fine now, but if you know anything about me, you’ll know that depriving me of internet for two weeks will not be a pretty sight.

Once that was sorted out, I got a cold of epic proportions. My old doctor used to prescribe me with seretide, taken through an asthma puffer. If I used it twice a day in the few days when my throat started to feel scratchy, the worst symptoms of the cold would normally pass me by. She did this because until the age of 23, I got colds so badly that they’d last for months, causing me to get a hacking cough that would continue ceaselessly, giving me sleepless nights and aching muscles. So when I got the Cold From Hell, I went to my Cambridge doctor, hoping to get a new prescription. No such luck. ‘That’s a steroid’, he said, when I showed him my seretide puffer. ‘You’ll become dependent on it if you use it too much.’ As my friend said to me when I complained about this, ‘You’re kind of dependent on breathing, too.’ Well, no breathing for Ronni, apparently.

I’m finally better from the cold, and all healthy and ready to face whatever disaster Cambridge next throws at me.

I’m enjoying my first PhD year so far. After struggling to write for ages, I did what I always do when I’m getting writers’ (and researchers’) block: schedule a meeting with my supervisor, which tends to scare me into getting back to work. It worked: I’ve now written nearly 2000 words in two days! Only 78,000 to go!

I’m sitting in on a lot of undergrad classes. My favourite is probably Medieval Irish, where we whip through texts at a much greater speed than we did last year. We’re currently translating Audacht Morainn (‘The Testament of Morann’), which is part legal text, part wisdom literature. It’s all about how to be a good ruler. I’m also taking second-year Latin, where we’re translating St Patrick’s rather idiosyncratic Confessio, and Welsh, where we’re translating the seriously baffling Canu Urien (‘Songs of Urien’). Finally, I’m taking beginners’ Modern Irish, which I love.

As far as life goes, I’m happy, but it’s a happiness tinged with nostalgic melancholy. Last year was just so perfect that it was always going to be impossible to top. I think part of the reason I loved 2008-2009 was because I’d been so miserable for so long before that. It was not going to be hard to have a better year than 2007! And so my friends in my department were kindred spirits, both in their love of all things obscurely medieval and in their love of the pub. My housemates were perfect (aside from the inability of some of them to do the washing up), and they became not merely the people I lived with, but good friends. I have to try hard not to make unfair comparisons, but it’s difficult. I’m in the same house, but with entirely different people, and the dynamic of the house has changed. None of my close MPhil friends continued on for the PhD, and to make matters worse, many of my good undergrad and postgrad friends also graduated.

Last academic year was so good in so many ways. It gave me the confidence I’d always been lacking. It gave me the sense of place for which I’d always been searching. It gave me the sense of purpose for which I’d always yearned. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but I never imagined it would be this hard. Up until last year, I always looked back with nostalgia at previous stages in my life, wishing I could do them again. I did not do so last academic year, and imagined myself to have broken the cycle. Apparently I have not.

‘If I heed your words, that is all I that I shall ever have’ August 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, life, memories, quotes.
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I’ve been wanting to do a post of quotes for a while, and now seems the right time to do it. I’ve been keeping a little notebook of quotes for about 10 years now, adding to it whenever I read or hear a particularly well-phrased set of words, and I’m almost at the end of the book, so today seems a particularly appropriate era-ending date for committing the words to cyberspace. I’ll try to keep things vaguely chronological.

‘People who read are always a little bit like you. You can’t just tell them. You have to tell them why.’ – Catherine Jinks, Pagan’s Crusade.

‘Tell them stories.’ – Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass.

‘Many different lamentations came to pierce me like arrows
Whose shafts were barbed with pity.’ – Dante Alighieri, Inferno, XXIX, 43-44.

‘She held the spindle as she sat
Erinna with the thick-coiled mat
Of raven hair and deepest agate eyes
Gazing with a sad surprise
At surging visions of her destiny
To spin the byssus drearily
In insect-labour, while the throng
Of goods and men wrought deeds that poets wrought in song.’ – George Eliot, chapter-heading poem to Daniel Deronda, chapter 51.

‘A man who cannot draw strength from himself but only from litanies and anthems, is far more dangerous than one who after reading a handbook thinks he can drive a car or plane.’ – Lajos Zihaly, The Angry Angel.

The entirety of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories ‘The Witness’ and ‘Everything and Nothing’.

‘If I heed your words that is all
that I shall ever have.
If I have no sword
where then shall I seek peace?

A sword might win a Peace’s time from tumult;
no peace have the hungry,
and so the Peace is made from the work of gathered days
the many’s many choices.’ – Graydon Saunders and Jo Walton, ‘Theodwyn’s Rede’.

‘I have been a prize in a game
I have been a queen on a hill
From far and far they flocked to see me.

White I am, amongst the shadows,
My shoulder is noted for its fairness
The two best men in all the world have loved me.

My crown is of apple, bough and blossom.
They wear my favour but my arms are empty.
The boat drifts heedless down the dark stream.’ – Jo Walton, ‘The Three Great Queens of the Island of Tir Tanagiri’.

‘ “There is only one good reason for fighting – and that is, if the other man started it. You see, wars are a wickedness of a wicked people. They are so wicked that they must not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop him.”

“But both sides always say that the other side started them.”

“Of course they do, and it is a good thing that it should be so. At least, it shows that both sides are conscious, inside themselves, that the wicked thing about a war is its beginning.” ‘ – T. H. White, The Witch In The Wood.

‘Begone from me, oh mortals who are pure of heart. Be gone from my thoughts, oh souls who dream great dreams. Be gone from me, all hymns of glory. I am the magnet for the damned. At least for a little while. And then my heart cries out, my heart will not be still, my heart will not give up, my heart will not give in – the blood that teaches life does not teach lies, and love becomes again my reprimand, my goad, my song.’ – Anne Rice, Blood Canticle.

‘Let the young sing songs of death. They are stupid. The finest thing under the sun and the moon is the human soul. I marvel at the small miracles of kindness that pass between humans, I marvel at the growth of conscience, at the persistence of reason in the face of all superstition and despair. I marvel at human endurance.’ – Anne Rice, Pandora.

‘No one can get in
Our world.
It has a wall twenty feet high
and adults
have only ten foot ladders.’ – Ross Falconer.

‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth (V, v, 17-28).

‘These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep.’ – William Shakespeare, The Tempest, (IV: i).

‘ “I think,” Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, “that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that I might’ve been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.” ‘ – Ursula Le Guin, The Other Wind.

‘Novii, novissimi – newer, newest. “The new” … “The newer newest. The newly come, no Novian but one. The newer branch of the Novian stem. No Novian but another comes to ruin you. Save yourself from that, if you think you can.” ‘ – Sophia McDougall, Rome Burning.

‘ “Are you Asterion?” “You flatter me, child, if you think me that malevolent”’ – Sara Douglass, Hades’ Daughter.

‘I have made Asterion “like”. I am a witch indeed.’ – Sara Douglass, Darkwitch Rising.

‘He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognised the names by which it called itself.’ – Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

‘Other countries have stories of kings who will return at times of great need. Only in England is it written in the constitution.’ – Ibid.

‘There are few things on earth that couldn’t be improved by adding vampires to them.’ – Scott Westerfeld.

‘The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise.’ – G. K. Chesterton, ‘Lepanto’.

‘Nine things about oracles
Let me try to be clear.
The first thing is that nobody wants to know,
and yet you can’t stop asking.
The second is you all want reassurance:
be better off with a fortune cookie.
The third is that I don’t owe you anything,
you’re not what it’s about.
I see the tiles, sideways, sometimes,
tessera, tesserae, the way the pattern
plays out in fifths, the beat falling
unchangedly, a glimpse, a resposte in sixte,
and what will be set, sept, set down in stone,
the colours always ambiguous
even in the moment the threads part,
the owls crying in the october meadow
gods and time and weight, wait,
that one instant of vision, the curtain falling, parting,
there is a whole ocean
crashing toward
that ninth wave.’ – Jo Walton, ‘Nine Things About Oracles’.

‘Rushing down every path; that is the great madness.’ – Buile Shuibne, translated by J. G. O’Keefe.

‘Without foray with a king,
I am alone in my home,
without glorious reavings,
without friends, without music…
Without a house right full,
without the converse of generous men,
without the title of a king,
without drink, without food.
Alas that I have been parted here
from my mighty, armed host…
Though I be as I am tonight,
there was a time
when my strength was not feeble
over a land that was not bad…
in my auspicious kingship
I was a good, great king.’ – Ibid.

‘My transgression has come against me
whatsoever way I flee;
’tis manifest to me from the pity shown me
that I am a sheep without a fold.’ – Ibid.

‘Sad this expedition;
would that I had not come!
Far from my home
is the country I have reached.’ – Ibid.

There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel Claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged claws: alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy, the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart
Thine eyes grow full of tender care,
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.’ – W. B. Yeats, ‘The Two Trees’.

‘In America, it almost seems like family has become a code word for something that you can put a five-year-old in front of, go out for two hours, and come back secure in the knowledge that your child will not have been exposed to any ideas.’ – Neil Gaiman.

These are all literary (as opposed to quotes from cinema, TV or music) but I think that’s enough to be going on with for now.

‘All’s there to love/ Only love’ August 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, life, memories, music, reviews.
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This is not the post I intended to write. This is the post that came to me in an opium-induced dream…er, no. This is the post that popped into my head as I was wandering back from Mill Road, trying to think of ways to avoid packing my belongings up in preparation for moving house. The idea, however, has been bubbling around in my mind since Raphael came to visit in April. We were talking about music, and about the first band, song or album that caused us to really listen to music in a different way.

For me, that band was Massive Attack. The album was Mezzanine. The song was ‘Risingson’. The year was 2001.

When you are a child or young teenager, you listen to music in a rather undiscriminating way (I use ‘you’ to mean ‘me’, of course). The first people to inform your tastes are your parents, and you listen to their music in a rather passive way. You might end up preferring several bands over others, but you do not yet have the tools to articulate why. Thus, I liked The Pogues, Paul Simon, Deborah Conway, Steeleye Span and Annie Lennox, but didn’t really have any reason for doing so beyond a vague sense of liking the sound.

The same goes for when you get a little older and begin to be influenced more by your friends, the radio and music videos (well, if you’re a 90s child who grew up watching Rage and Video Hits or their equivalents). You like certain songs and bands because the people around you like them. Hence, Savage Garden, Hanson, Regurgitator, Backstreet Boys, Silverchair, Aqua and a truly bizarre parade of one-hit wonders (The Mavises? Eiffel 65? Shanks and Bigfoot?). But again these are the tastes of other people and not your own.

So what changes? Well, for me at least (a person who loves to reduce life to a series of ‘She turned a corner and everything changed’ moments), I listened to one song, and then one album, by one band, and it totally changed the way I listened to music, to the extent to which I believe that nothing I did before that moment can truly be called ‘listening to music’.

When I was 16, in early 2001, I went around to an acquaintance’s house with a bunch of other friends. We were meant to be preparing for a group oral presentation on Oedipus Rex for our English class, but, as in so many cases, we abandoned work in favour of socialising. One of my friends put on a CD. It was Mezzanine by Massive Attack.

I had heard their song ‘Teardrop’ before; it had been all over the airwaves in 2000, and I had enjoyed it and been seriously creeped out by its video clip. But I hadn’t thought about the band beyond that. As the scratchy, sinister notes of ‘Angel’ melded with Horace Andy’s silky singing, I pricked up my ears, and began to really listen. By the time we’d got to the next track, ‘Risingson’, I had begun to do something I’d never done before when listening to music: listening with half my ear attuned to the lyrics (which I was analysing like a literary text) and half my ear attuned to the way the lyrics and sound were perfectly fused:

‘Where have all those flowers gone?
Long time passing
Why you keep me tsk and keep me tasking
You keep on asking.’

Before the year was out, I’d bought Mezzanine and Massive Attack’s two other albums, Blue Lines and Protection (Hundredth Window had not been released at that stage). Although Mezzanine remained my favourite (and is, in fact, my favourite album still), I adored the earlier albums too. But why? Why would albums about race relations, immigration and the transformed culture of early 90s Britain (Blue Lines and Protection) and about disgust with the hedonism of the Bristol scene (Mezzanine, which is also meant to be the best album to get high to) have anything to say to a nerdy, middle-class, shy Canberran teenager?

Well, it was the twofold nature of Massive Attack’s lyrics that appealed. On the one hand, they were highly specific, tied to trip-hop, Bristol, Britain, the 90s. On the other, they reached out for the universal with literary and musical allusions. They were at once intensely self-absorbed and personal and overwhelmingly communicative and broadly-focused.

Take ‘Five Man Army’, the fifth track from Blue Lines. The song is packed with internal references to the band (‘Wild Bunch crew at large’) and its history (‘When I was a child I played subbuteo on/ My table then I graduate to studio one/ ’Cos D’s my nom de plume you know but 3’s my pseudonym’). At the same time, it manages to squeeze in a selection of pop-cultural shout-outs (‘I take a small step now it’s a giant stride/ People say I’m loud why should I hide’; ‘See we’re rockin’ in your area rock beneath your balcony/ My baby just cares for me well that’s funny/ Her touch tickles especially on my tummy’; ‘It’s started by Marconi resumed by Sony/ A summary by wireless history and only’; and, arguably, ‘Money money money/ Root of all evil’). There are a series of thematic riffs running through the song, melded coherently, dropped and picked up again at exactly the right place but emphasised in a slightly different way (‘I quietly observe/ Though it’s not my space’ subtly reworks the opening lyrics of ‘I quietly observe/ Standing in my space’, for example). This is a rap song, the type of rap song that is all about talking oneself up, but it’s posturing via literary allusion rather than the usual bragging about one’s car, posse and sexual prowess.

Aside from the lines ‘I quietly observe standing in my space/ Daydreaming’, which has become a kind of personal mantra, ‘Five Man Army didn’t really speak to me in any kind of meaningful way (although I gained great pleasure unpicking the lyrics and musing on the way they fitted together). But there are many Massive Attack songs that seemed to be written especially for me.

‘Protection’ spoke directly to my teenage loneliness, my (misplaced, as it turns out) sense of grief and my desire to be cared for. It sounds pathetic now, but when I was 17, and entering my second year of unrequited love, hearing the beautiful voice of Tracy Thorn singing

This girl I know needs some shelter
She don’t believe anyone can help her
She’s doing so much harm, doing so much damage
But you don’t want to get involved
You tell her she can manage
And you can’t change the way she feels
But you could put your arms around her

I know you want to live yourself
But could you forgive yourself
If you left her just the way
You found her

meant so much. Every time I hear that song, I remember all my wasted emotion on a guy I referred to in my diaries as ‘You’ (with the capital Y) and stared at in what I thought was a wanly plaintive expression across classrooms.

All teenagers have a misguided sense of the significance of their own suffering, but I’m grateful that my personal emo soundtrack was ‘Protection’ and not ‘Welcome To The Black Parade’.

If I was an emo, I was also a wannabe hippie. I kid you not when I say that as a teenager I truly intended to live out my adult days as an environmental protester. And, would you believe it, Massive Attack have a hippie, ‘everyone hold hands together and sing kumbaya’ song. It’s called ‘The Hymn of the Big Wheel’, and it is sung by the incomparable Horace Andy, and it is beautiful.

I’d like to feel that you could be free
Look up at the blue skies beneath a new tree
Sometime again
You’ll turn green and the sea turns red
My son I said the power of axis over my head
The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

We sang about the sun and danced among the trees
And we listened to the whisper of the city on the breeze
Will you cry in the most in a lead-free zone
Down within the shadows where the factories drone
On the surface of the wheel they build another town
And so the green come tumbling down
Yes close your eyes and hold me tight
And I’ll show you sunset sometime again

I challenge you to listen to this and not be moved. It has an innocence and purity, and a knowing cynicism all at once. It could only have been written in the 90s, with the environmental movement hovering in the background, and the potential of the internet as a tool of both distance and closeness hovering beyond the comprehension of most people. The song makes you want to dance barefoot in the mud and watch the clouds, and then burst into tears at the thought of the butchered Tasmanian rainforests.

Then there’s the truly bizarre ‘Sly’. ‘I already know my children’s children’s faces/ Voices that I’ve heard before’. What the hell is that all about? And then we come to:

I feel like a thousand years have passed
I’m younger than I used to be
I feel like the world is my home at last
I know everyone that I meet […]

Wondering is this there all there is
Since I was since I began to be
Wondering, wandering
Where we can do what we please
Wondering

If you think about those lyrics, you know all you’ll ever need to know to understand me as I was then, as I am now, and as I will always be. ‘Sly’ expresses a mindset of mine that is expressed in a similar way by Jo Walton in The King’s Peace, the first volume of her two-part Arthurian alt-history series:

What it is to be old is to remember things that nobody else alive can remember. I always say that when people ask me about my remarkable long life. Now they can hear me when I say it. Now, when I am ninety-three and remember so many things that are to them nothing but bright legends long ago and far away. I do not tell them that I said that first when I was seventeen, and felt it too…So I have been old by my own terms since I was seventeen.

– Jo Walton, The King’s Peace, Penguin, p ix.

I haven’t even got on to Mezzanine yet. In my mind, no one will ever make a more perfect album. (I know this is a controversial opinion among Massive Attack fans, since this was the album that caused serious fractures in the bands and marked a departure from Massive Attack’s original sound.) It is a brilliant, coherent unity of words, sound and theme. The songs can be paired to give a broader, more complex understanding of their writers’ ideas.

For example, ‘Inertia Creeps’ is a record of a destructive, unsatisfying relationship from the guy’s perspective. He knows there’s something not quite right going on (‘Will you take a string/ Say you string me along’), but he chooses to ignore it, so he can get some action, essentially. Two songs later (and it’s significant that the song between is called ‘Exchange’, since we exchange points of view) is ‘Dissolved Girl’, the same story told from the perspective of the girl. Only now do we have the complete story. She doesn’t love him, and he knows it, but says nothing. She stays because the alternative is worse, and says nothing. He can feel the inertia creeping, moving up slowly, and says nothing. She stays, despite the fact that the relationship is destroying her sense of self (‘Shame, such a shame/ I think I kind of lost myself again’). We’re meant to lose ourselves in love, but surely staying in a loveless relationship and allowing whatever happens to happen causes an equal loss of identity. A dissolution. It’s seriously powerful stuff, and I wish I could say that I appreciate it solely on an intellectual level.

Moving along, we come to what are in my opinion the ‘Big Three’ of the album (I adore ‘Teardrop’ to bits, but it’s so overplayed, and I will limit myself to saying that its lines ‘Love, love is a verb/ Love is a doing word’ are among my favourite song lyrics ever, and Liz Fraser’s vocals are incredible) – ‘Black Milk’, ‘Mezzanine’ and ‘Group Four’.

‘Black Milk’ has an illusion of simplicity. Its lines are short, brief, and almost curt. But a closer look reveals hidden depths. The hovering, dark notes of the music evokes the watery, dark corners of the ocean floor, and I almost picture a series of bizarre marine creatures, the lights on their bodies illuminating the gloom in the higher points of the music. Liz Fraser’s voice is incredible, cutting through the sinister music with shimmering clarity. The sound is amazingly cold, and amazingly pure. And what of the words themselves? They are beautiful, but kind of creepy at the same time:

Eat me
In the space
Within my heart

Unlike ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’, which are about being lost in the lack of love, ‘Black Milk’ is about being lost in love:

All’s there to love
Only love

Next up is ‘Mezzanine’, in my opinion the most perfect song ever written (it could only be more perfect if it had a female singer soaring in above 3D and Daddy G). What can I say about it that I haven’t said already? I associate it with the SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ‘TROY GAME’ BOOKS relationship between Asterion/Weyland and Cornelia/Eaving/Noah in Sara Douglass’ Troy Game series, which is my model for Great Love And Its Power To Save The World And All People. Even as the lyrics allude to something I believe deeply (that true love is the instigator of personal improvement, and if it doesn’t change you, it’s not love), they are playfully punning:

I could be yours
We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine

We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
Will see to
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will see to
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
We can unwind all our flaws
We can unwind all our flaws

Flaws-floors. The song’s called ‘Mezzanine’. Get it? It’s glorious stuff. (By the way, you might’ve noticed that I changed the lyrics from ‘All these have flaws’ as the lyrics website has to ‘All these other flaws’. I may be wrong, but I think that the lyrics should read ‘All these other flaws’. It makes more sense if the song is punning on flaws-floors.)

Finally we have ‘Group Four’, which acts as a counterpoint to the bleakness of ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’. This song is sung by a man (3D) and a woman (Liz Fraser), unlike ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’, which each have only one singer. They are in harmony. They are not lost and dissolved and inert. They are found. She is a person again, with a sense of self (‘See through me little glazed lane/ A world in myself/ Ready to sing’). He has lost his apathy and inertia (‘Flickering I roam’ and ‘I see to bolts/ Put keys to locks/ No boat are rocked/ I’m free to roam’). All is right with the world.

I could go on, but this post is now longer than some of the essays I’ve had to write for uni, and I don’t know how short your attention spans are. I’ve put a lot of myself into this post, and it is more personal than anything I would normally write on this particular blog, but it had to be said. Massive Attack absolutely changed the world for me. They made me listen to music in a different way, and have had an extraordinary influence on the way I appreciated both my old favourite bands and every new song I heard. Never before had music shown me both the world, and myself, more clearly.