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On wish-fulfillment fantasies January 15, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, reviews.
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4 comments

When I was in the early years of secondary school, I invented a character called Amber. She was short, slender and pale, with a cloud of dark hair and one bright blue and one bright green eye (in other words, what I considered the epitome of beauty at the time). She lived in twelfth-century Ireland. Her father was the illegitimate son of an Irish ruler, and her mother was the daughter of a Japanese nobleman. Her Irish grandfather had five children by his first wife, seven by his second, and six illegitimate children, and the entire family had basically carved up the entire west coast of Ireland among themselves through a combination of ruthless diplomacy and strategically tactical marriages. Amber was married to Pagan Kidrouk (that is, she was married to the fictional character on whom I had a massive crush), and they had an ever-increasing brood of perfect children. Pagan had hitched his star to Amber’s family’s cause, and the two of them spent their time riding from relative to relative, keeping the whole family’s quest for political power afloat, forging alliances and seeing off competition. Amber’s younger sisters were in her social circle and they all treated one another with complete respect and love at all times. Even the backstory of how Amber’s parents got together was over-the-top: her father, despairing of ever finding his One True Love™, had mournfully cast a multilingual message in a bottle into the sea in the hope that whoever found it would seek him out and agree to marry him. The bottle wound up in Japan, and Amber’s mother’s decision to marry her Irish father essentially saved her from the events of the Genpei War. The entire story was completely ludicrous.

In other words, she was my teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. Amber joined an existing and ever-expanding cast of alter egos whose stories I recorded in diaries over a series of years beginning in early childhood and continuing for the duration of my time in secondary school. Sometimes I didn’t commit their stories to paper, but rather narrated them to myself in my head as I went about my daily life. They all existed in a range of time periods – some belonged to families of witches in pre-Christian Ireland, others had been captured by Vikings and lived in exile, while others were my contemporaries in late-’90s Australia. These alter-egos shared certain key characteristics and experiences: they were the best at everything they did, they (mostly) had perfect husbands or boyfriends who fell in instant love with them and whose identities were entirely subsumed by the causes that were important to the characters and their families (in other words, they were love interests who required no sacrifices or effort because they existed only to support the characters’ lives), they shared a social circle with their siblings (who were usually younger sisters whose interests aligned perfectly with those of my characters), and they were valued and rewarded for their competence and hard work with acclaim and adoration.

A lot of people treat the wish-fulfillment fantasies of teenage girls as something inherently damaging, ridiculous and embarrassing. I cannot bring myself to participate in such blanket condemnation. I’m much more interested in working out why particular fantasies (especially published fantasies such as the Twilight or Hunger Games series) gain such traction in particular instances. My own (unpublished) fantasies are pretty explicable: I wanted to be loved but feared having to change anything about myself in order to attain it, wanted to be admired and rewarded for what I perceived as my talents, and wanted the kind of relationship with my sister that I saw happening among siblings in my favourite stories. To put it more bluntly, I felt uncomfortable and powerless in my own skin and set about creating stories in which I had power and control. I cannot regret or feel embarrassed about doing so. My alter egos made my teenage years infinitely easier. Whenever I felt frightened or sad, I was usually able to lift my spirits by imagining a better world, and I was able to motivate myself to work or continue at things I found boring by telling myself that my idealised characters wouldn’t give up in the face of boredom or difficulty.

This is not to say that wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed teenage girls should be above scrutiny. Although I believe that they are treated with scorn to a much greater degree than the fantasies aimed at teenage boys or adult men (I don’t see, for example, Batman or James Bond receiving the amount of contemptuous vitriol aimed at Bella Swan or her fellow YA paranormal romance heroines), nothing is above criticism, and reviewers and bloggers should be honest in pointing out things that bother them in media that they encounter. It is with this in mind that I turn to a book that has been receiving a lot of internet buzz among YA reviewers and commentators, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

The main character in this work, Karou, lives a carefree existence as an art student in Prague, flitting from cafe to cafe and hanging out in an interestingly bohemian circle of friends. She has a secret existence as a messenger for the shadowy, supernatural figure Brimstone (who raised her), which enables her to travel instantaneously anywhere in the world. Her position as Brimstone’s protege grants her certain privileges – as long as she has enough currency, she can wish for whatever she wants, even the impossible (such as dyeing her hair permanently blue). In other words, Karou can do what she wants, go wherever she wants, and has a real-world existence that is already pretty cool. However, secrets from her unremembered past slowly begin to catch up with her, and as she is drawn more and more into Brimstone’s world, she realises she is in deadly danger, and that her identity as seventeen-year-old, human Karou is a lie.

So far, so harmless wish-fulfillment. The world Taylor has created is quirky and engaging, and great fun to hang around in. However, there is one element of Daughter and Smoke and Bone that bothered me so intensely that I had to devote the remainder of this blog post to it. Karou has no female friends.

This is not entirely correct. Karou has one female friend, Zuzana, who is a fellow student at the art school. However, Zuzana is marked from the start as being no equal to Karou: she is an ordinary human girl and knows nothing about Karou’s supernatural adventures. And, most importantly, she is already safely paired up with a boyfriend.

Literally every other young female character is portrayed as competition for Karou. Her human ex-boyfriend Kaz (whom Karou doesn’t even much like) acquires a new girlfriend whose sole characteristic seems to be jealousy of Karou. Even Zuzana admits to finding Kaz attractive and castigates Karou for giving him up. And a major plot point hinges on another female character being jealous of Karou’s appearance and envying her the (unwanted) attention she receives from another male character. In this way, Karou is marked as being both more desirable than all other female characters (because multiple male characters pursue her, and her alone) and more discerning (because she rejects the affections of those would-be love interests due to character flaws which are portrayed as being obvious only to her). So not only are the other female characters in competition with Karou, Taylor gives us the impression that they are stupid for doing so, because they appear blind to the flaws in the male characters which only Karou perceives. This is a sadly familiar pattern in wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed at women: we find it in Twilight and its imitations, as well as in a lot of paranormal romance aimed at adult women (such as The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series).

As someone who wrote a story about her book boyfriend being in love with her idealised character, I have a lot of sympathy for teenage (and not-so-teenage) wish-fulfillment fantasies depicting their protagonists being pursued by a multitude of love interests. It’s a powerful trope for girls who may be feeling unlovable or simply baffled at how to have romantic relationships. However, this desire to be desired should not be portrayed at the expense of functional friendships among teenage girls. Portraying all female relationships as inherently competitive and antagonistic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in the real world whereby girls and women view all other girls and women with suspicion, undermining one another instead of supporting each other. I can say from personal experience that it has been extremely rare, from adolescence onward, that my close female friends and I were in competition for the same things (apart from, on occasion, the best grades in class).

I am not saying that there is a moral imperative for YA authors to write every relationship between female characters as being devoid of competition or even hostility. However, when every single such relationship fits this paradigm, I fear we have a problem. It’s the main reason that I will be much more cautious in seeking out works by Laini Taylor in the future. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. It has the dubious honour of being the narrative which caused me to evaluate every text (particularly those aimed at teenage girls) against whether or not its protagonist has (non-antagonistic) female friends. This has become my version of the Bechdel Test. It’s not a perfect gauge of a story’s quality, but it goes a long way towards creating a favourable impression.

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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?

It don’t matter if you’re black or white… November 29, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, reviews.
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…but if you’re grey, forget about it!

Reading books in a series which you loved as a child or teenager is on occasion an unsettling experience. Some childhood favourites stand the test of time, remaining as true in adulthood as they were in youth. The works of Gillian Rubinstein, Adele Geras, Catherine Jinks and Philip Pullman remain thus for me. Those of Victor Kelleher I get even more out of than I did as an adolescent. Some of the things he says are hidden until you’ve lived long enough, I think. If any of these authors were to write another book in the series I enjoyed, I would be delighted.

But sometimes, looking at the books of your childhood with an adult eye is a confronting and disappointing experience. Something about them doesn’t stand up. Themes which previously seemed intensely relevant to your life appear less significant, or at least less well-expressed. The truth which you previously drew from such books is less true, less significant, less burning.

I’m sad to say that, upon reading The Sending, the latest in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, I realised this series was of the second type. Spoilers follow.

Carmody is, above all things, possessed of a unique ability to understand and convey the mindset, hopes, fears and dreams of a particular type of teenager. This teenager is one who is shy, artistic and bookish, hyper-empathetic and self-aware, and just realising what a cruel place the world can be. There are some adults like this, but not so many. I was one such teenager. Her books, with their message that if we all were more empathetic and compassionate, the world would be a much better place, resonated deeply with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think empathy and compassion are wonderful, admirable qualities, and that we should strive towards them at all times. But I can no longer look past Carmody’s converse argument, which is that lack of empathy and compassion is a sort of sickness or disease. (This is something she argues pretty much across the board in her books: in the Obernewtyn books and in Alyzon Whitestarr, characters can perceive a mental sickness in the antagonistic, non-empathetic characters, while in the Legendsong books, multiple worlds are literally dying because people in them can no longer hear the ‘song’ which is the metaphor for the harmony of creation.)

Such an explanation seems to me to remove responsibility from such characters for their actions, and it removes responsibility from the heroic, empathetic characters to help the former. But, more unforgiveably, it removes ambiguity and nuance. I find this problem most pronounced in the Obernewtyn books. The heroes are all noble-minded, compassionate and pacifist, the villains are all mindlessly violent, bigoted and acquisitive. The heroes have tragic pasts that they rise above. The villains have no backstory.

Just about the only character with any hint of moral ambiguity was Domick, a Misfit (ie one of the good guys) sent to infiltrate the Council (the baddies) and send back information. The horrors he sees cause him to sever ties with Obernewtyn and renounce non-violence. This is an entirely explicable and justifiable character arc. When you’re fighting evil, you can’t help but become a little bit morally grey.

But of course there’s no place for nuance in the world of Obernewtyn. Someone like Domick can’t exist. So he’s killed off in The Stone Key, the fifth book in the series.

I realise I’m taking Carmody to task for not writing the kind of book I want to read. She’s free to write whatever she wants, and I’m free to stop reading, but I honestly feel her arguments would be stronger if things weren’t always so morally clear-cut. Why, in a six-book series with a cast of characters that takes up five pages of the book, does only one person display an ounce of moral ambiguity? Why do all the other characters who suffer abuse, discrimination or horrors of some kind go mad, become consumed by grief or fear, but never, ever get angry or reevaluate their beliefs? And why does Carmody think that ‘he just loves to hurt those weaker than himself/is power-hungry’ is a catch-all explanation for cruelty and injustice?

I will keep reading, because I’ve been doing so for nearly 15 years, but I fear a terrible fate has befallen me. I’ve grown up too much to get any life-defining, resonant truth out of the Obernewtyn books, and am continuing to read out of a mixture of nostalgia and a desire to find out how it all ends.

NB: I should add that in spite of this problem, I do find Carmody a very fine storyteller. There was not one point at which I wanted to close the book, and I gulped the whole thing down in just over a day. I have no issues with the overall story or themes. I just think they are weakened by problematic characterisation.

Fell from my heart and landed in my eyes August 25, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, music, reviews.
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In matters of music, I tend to be so behind trends that I’m left chasing the dust of the bandwagon. And while I’m happy to throw myself with glee towards the latest manufactured pop act, if a singer has indie credentials and favourable reviews in the music press – in short, if he or she is the festival darling du jour – I am skeptical.

Hence it taking me two years to bother listening to Florence + The Machine.

Her very ubiquity turned me off. It was not until one friend made a playlist that included ‘Cosmic Love’, and another gave me the whole Lungs album that I realised what I’d been missing. I was hooked. I listened to the album seven times in a row last night, and then went back and forth replaying the four songs that really sang to me: ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, ‘Drumming Song’, ‘Cosmic Love’ and ‘Blinding’.

I wasn’t at all surprised at the suddenness and depth of my love. My favourite music, the stuff I really cling to and identify with, could all be termed ’emotional, quirkily black-humoured, usually ethereal female vocalists’: the soaring voices of the female guest-vocalists of Massive Attack, The Knife, with their way with dark words that enables them to interweave Vikings, ‘Scandinavian socialism’ and misogyny in one song, and the rich grief and strength of country singers like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.

The music of Florence + The Machine possesses these qualities in abundance. I’ve seen her described as a kind of musical Angela Carter, and I think the description is very apt. Her songs are a kind of dark fairytale, a metaphorical maze of mirrors and animal imagery. She sings about woman as body laid bare, not just naked but dissected, cut open and reduced to its component parts. And she does it with such compassion, beauty, sorrow, jubilation and power that I’m left feeling like I’ve been run over by a train after listening.

I feel that ’empowering’ is a complicated word and should be used with care, but I know of at least a couple of friends who found Florence’s music to be a source of strength at difficult times in their lives, and I personally found two songs in particular extremely empowering, whatever that word means. They are ‘Cosmic Love’ and ‘Blinding’, and to say that they reflect my own personal experience would be an understatement. You may recall that when I write about music, I tend to look for connections between songs, and in particular identify two songs as being a linked pair in some manner. I feel very strongly that, at least from my perspective, these two Florence songs are a linked pair.

It may be obvious when you listen and look at the lyrics that to me, ‘Cosmic Love’ is about loving someone who is deeply inappropriate and hurtful, while those of ‘Blinding’ are about waking up from that love and walking once again in the daylight and the spring and the sunshine. That’s what they say to me, but I have a particular set of experiences and a tendency to seek the words of others in order to mythologise these experiences and give them voice. I would not be so presumptuous as to declare that that is what the words mean to Florence or to other listeners.

There are so many other words and stories behind these songs. There is addiction (which doesn’t necessarily have to be to a person). There are Russian fairytales. There is Snow White and Persephone (and Florence is by no means the first person to make this connection). There is so much feeling it is almost unbearable, if not for the fact that the feelings being articulated are my own, and they are so perfectly articulated that they give me bravery and strength. They give me a voice.

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

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
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3 comments

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.

Book learning November 19, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
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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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2 comments

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.

I don’t go to parties, baby August 29, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, music.
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7 comments

Any street cred this blog ever had is going to go out the window, because I am about to write about Regurgitator. That’s right, you read that correctly. Regurgitator. My non-Australian readers are probably scratching their heads right now, befuddled. If you don’t want to read about a rather popular 1990s Australian electronic rock band who sang about apathy, agoraphobia and video games, I give you leave to tune out. My Australian readers are probably scratching their heads in befuddlement for a different reason. Why would I want to write about Regurgitator?

Quite simply because I think they were one of the best bands in Australia in the 90s. Their music, in particular in the albums Unit and …Art was a sign of the times as much as the adolescent shrieks of Silverchair and the melodic, barely suppressed anger of the Whitlams. These three young nerds from Brisbane (and why is it that so much of the best Australian bands came out of Brisbane? I can’t for the life of me think of anything else to recommend the place) captured something essential about the experience of teenagers and twentysomethings in the Howard years.

Our esteemed former prime minister claimed when he came to power in 1996 that he wanted Australians to feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’, not angsty about our past and frightened about our future. The burning debates of his predecessor, Paul Keating, about reconciliation with the Stolen Generation of indigenous Australians, about Australia’s relationship with Asia, about the environment, about the importance of the arts and intellectual life in Australian culture, were swept under the rug, out of sight but certainly not out of mind. And people were not happy.

One of the big differences between my generation and previous generations (aside from Gen X, whose attitudes and tastes did much to shape the tastes of us Gen Y types, much as both generations would prefer to deny it) is that we reacted to unhappiness and dissatisfaction not with protest and action, but with despair, withdrawal and ennui. Not for nothing are we known as the ‘whatever’ generation. We certainly weren’t relaxed and comfortable – in many cases we were simmering with rage, but we preferred a quieter, less public, form of revolution. We retreated inside. And for the first time, we had the technology to help us.

Regurgitator tapped into all of this. They were, now that I think about it, one of the first bands to recognising the potential for the internet and video games to exacerbate depression and disconnect. Take the lyrics for the song ‘Virtual Life’, the final song on …Art. It’s about a television, but it might as well be about the internet:

I’ve got everything
That I could ever need
It’s under lock and key
Just survive all alone me and my screens

(I hasten to add that this is only one way the internet might affect you. For me, the internet has been nothing but a joy, a source of many fantastic new circles of friends and a place that has taught me so much.)

What about ‘Everyday Formula’ and ‘Black Bugs’, which riff on the same theme, but in relation to video games? Again we find this same emphasis on raising the drawbridge, dropping the portcullis and closing the curtains as a reaction to profound fear of, and disgust at, society:

I got killed by black bugs on my video game
And although to myself it doesn’t mean too much
I keep dying and dying over and over again
But I feel I’m alive so I’ll just pretend

People think that because Regurgitator’s music is full of cheesy electronic notes that wouldn’t be out of place in an old school video game, because they recorded an album in a plastic bubble in the middle of Federation Square and because they pepper their albums with silly, scatological songs, that they are incapable of being serious. But they’re deadly serious when they’re talking about the plastic, fakeness of celebrity and society, as in ‘Polyester Girl’, ‘Happiness’ and ‘Freshmint!. Right when they’re at their most humorous, they’re at their most cutting:

I love pointless effluent
It seems to love me
It’s sticking to my heart like polythene glue
Making everything seem so sweet

Big wide world of bitterness baby
Poisoning up this tongue
Giving this life its sweet respite
Let’s rip that packet of fun

Rotting my brain once again
It’s always the same and never ends (x2)

Love me lovely cathode-ray
Mother me in your glow
I’ll do anything you say
If you tell me I’ll never be alone

Touch me shiny magazine
Touch me way down there
I can’t help but imagining
That you really care

Powerful stuff.

Regurgitator’s appeal always lay in the fact that we knew they were a trio of basement-dwelling nerds. But they were basement-dwelling nerds with something to say, deeply worried about what was going on in society, able to sum up the fears, passivity and neuroses of a generation which had collectively decided that what was going on in the world outside was intolerable, unendurable, and impossible to change. They never spoke about our dreams, because how could such a generation possibly dream? They were deeply, deeply daggy, and revelled in their dagginess. How could one forget ‘The Song Formerly Known As’, a riot of rejection, door-closing and denial?

As the song progresses, the singer rejects parties (‘I don’t go to parties baby/ ‘Cos people tend to freak me out’), discos (‘Won’t see me down the disco mama/ Bright lights really hurt my eyes’), concerts (‘I don’t go to concerts baby/ The music’s always up too loud’) and raving (‘Won’t see me tribal raving/ Cos I won’t ever look that good/ Rather dance in ugly pants/ in the comfort of a loungeroom in surburbia’). It’s the petulant whine, ‘no, no, no, I don’t do that, I don’t do anything, everything is too scary, it’s too much, it’s unendurable’ dressed up as a rousing nerd anthem.

Or is it? ‘The Song Formerly Known As’ is also a nerdy chat up line. (‘Things don’t get no better/ better than you and me’, after all.) It’s a rejection of all the meaningless externalities that get in the way of real relationships. Let’s raise the drawbridge, drop the portcullis and shut the curtains against all those vacuous discos, concerts and parties and stay at home, rejecting the world together. Everything out there is meaningless. Whatever. I don’t go to parties, baby.

I leave you with the video clip for ‘The Song Formerly Known As’. Enjoy!

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

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, life, memories, music, reviews.
Tags: , , , , ,
4 comments

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.