There are a number of songs that conjure incredibly strong memories of particular people, routines and instances from my student days when I was part of the university’s ballroom and latin dancing society. As a society, we started staging showcases as a form of fundraising, or so we told ourselves – in truth, they usually only broke even through creative accounting, what with glitter and spraypaint totally counting as assets…
This song in particular reminds me of 2015 (I think, maybe 2016), when we had to relocate our showcase from the university’s big hall to a smaller amphitheatre stage at a local high school due to significant student protests. It was a time of much general anxiety, though I hadn’t realised what that tightly wound feeling actually was; I was doing my MA and teaching some undergrad seminars, but thankfully I was no longer running the society as I had before. The showcase usually worked because various people brainstormed and choreographed and did endless hours of unpaid admin, and then executed their visions with a crowd of volunteer dancers who had to be cajoled into attending rehearsals. We all spent weeks of evening and weekend practices to put forth the production, and while the result was very good, the process was a source of great frustration for lots of the participants.
Some memorable hits include a very beautiful, if fernickety piece that required explainer videos with buttons marking the positions of all the couples, some large-scale numbers where we tried to squish everyone onto the stage, and a few that were basically all about getting people into slinky costumes. Always, there would be a couple of non ballroom and latin bits, mostly to keep it a show that everyone could enjoy and invite their parents, friends, colleagues and so on to. Lots of big numbers with keen beginners – and they were always fun and full of energy, which I think makes for better showcase than lots of technique. This one sticks in my mind, and I only have to hear a very little bit of Backstreet Boys (any song, really, not even just this one) to immediately think of the friend that choreographed it, and his lovely partner, who was largely responsible for the showcase that year going ahead as planned.
This has been a week of doing lots of things that weren’t writing my novel, including an online course, reading, doing some editing work, and maintaining some reasonable exercise habits. So I almost didn’t post today, because it almost isn’t worth the update, but I thought I would anyway, just to keep my wordpress streak going for a little bit longer (yes, yes, the wordpress streak has my soul, I know, and it’s not even a reasonable obsessive tendency). In 3 days’ time, I’ll reach 80 days of my streak, and thereafter, will stop posting daily and focus on the main thing a bit more. It will be a relief – I think to me and to the few people who regularly read the blogs.
Word count: 24973 (29%)
Words this week: 2134 (see? barely anything)
Best day: Monday, with the vast bulk of that. Basically the only day I did much/any novelling.
I got very stuck in getting to my 25% plot point. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and it just kept getting wordier without getting there. I eventually sketched some ‘must happen’ bits and carried on.
I’m enjoying the plotstormers course? Does that even count, because I’m working on a different novel with it? I’m using plotstormers to plan my NaNoWriMo effort, so when November comes along, I can churn out the goods at a cracking pace.
Win this week was breaking into Act 2 of the novel, even if I did it kicking and screaming. From tomorrow, I will start interspersing the Plotstormers thinking with some initial crime scene investigations. Exciting, and a bit scary.
Second win: realising (and being told by a very good external sounding board) that my daily posts had proved their point, and I needed to move on with the more substantive writing instead of faffing just to maintain a streak.
Goals for next week
Write at least 4000 words of (this) novel by next Sunday, and stay up to speed with the course.
After reading the rather intense and historical Mr Peacock’s Possessions, I turned my attention to one of the books that I found through our building’s system of ‘abandon crap I’m otherwise donating to the charity shops outside my door for a couple of hours to see if I can avoid the trip to the donation box’. (Yes, that was very succinct. I love the system. I’ve got a pile of books, a new coat with label still on, the best jeans, a big Pyrex dish and a washstand through this system.). So whenever someone posts that they have some things, I go check it out, and this time I got a small pile of books for my trouble. Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle has been on my radar for a while, because of the Miyazaki film version. Despite her prolific writing, I don’t think I’ve read anything else by her. Adding her book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland to my list, to buy and to read. I’m definitely going to need to buy a new bookshelf at some point.
The story follows Sophie Hatter, a young woman who works in her parents’ hat shop until she is rude to a customer who places a curse on her. The curse ages her in an instant, and newly 90-year-old Sophie runs away. She takes shelter in the moving castle of a much-feared wizard called Howl, where she becomes his cleaning lady, forges a friendship with the wizard’s fire demon, and slowly awakens to her own magic.
The main characters are Sophie and the titular Howl. Their interactions are supported by a surprisingly large cast of secondary characters, including Calcifer the fire demon, Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and various bewitched scarecrows, dogs and of course, the Witch of the Waste.
Sophie’s internal grumbly monologue makes up a large part of her characterisation. She is sort of resigned to her new self, even though she aged substantially in an instant. She makes the most of being old, especially in how her age seems to give her more social clout. Before she is cursed, she is shown as talking a lot to inanimate objects, which, it turns out, was part of her magic.
Howl’s chief characteristic is probably his foppishness; he spends hours in the bathroom prettifying himself with spells, and throws plenty of little tantrums when things don’t quite go his way. He comes across as spoiled, but also rather generous. Michael, his apprentice, mentions having to hide some of the money they make so that Howl doesn’t just go and spend it all. It’s really interesting to see his growth and development over the course of the novel, and I think his character arc would make for excellent discussions in early high school literature classes.
A lot of the magic of the moving castle is not just in the fact that it moves… oh no, dear reader! It also has a door that can open into different locations depending on where the doorknob dial is placed. This means that Howl and his crew serve a variety of locations with their magical services, as Pendragon or Jenkins, or whatever name he decides to adopt. One of the places that Howl and friends end up in through the magical door to multiple places, probably the most odd of the parallel places, is, well, Wales. The characters pop through the door to modern-day Wales, to where Howl becomes Howell, and he has a nephew who plays video games. It’s very interesting, and I can totally hear the valley accent creeping in while I’m reading it. Howell even comes back home drunk after a visit to his Welsh rugby club reunion. So weird, so cool, but also really incongruous with the rest of the plot, to be honest.
Comparison with the movie
So, as I mentioned up top, there is also a very well-known movie of this narrative, by the Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. It’s the only anime-eque thing I’ve ever intentionally watched, and I do have other Miyazaki movies on my list after this past rewatch. I think lots of the common praise of his movie-making include the romance and charm of everyday things, like cooking and being cozy at home.
There are some major differences in the Miyazaki version to the original novel, and I don’t think that all of them are great, but some of them do work towards making the narrative better suited to the medium – I’m happy for some changes to be made in the adaptation to movie format.
In terms of the characterisation, the movie takes a bit of a different attitude towards Howl. He’s definitely more of a drama-queen in the book than in the movie, in which he is more aloof and mysterious (if notably vain). On the other hand, Calcifer is much more outspoken and (dare I say it) has more character in the movie. So you win some, you average others out.
Miyazaki adds a whole new narrative arc of the war between kingdoms into the tale, which adds some narrative tension, but kind of messes with the other dynamics between Howl, the Witch of the Waste and the other magic users. I think that the movie’s approach to the Witch of the Waste (and consequently the crux of the plot in the book version) is not my cup of tea.
As much as I think it’s still a great movie, and if it is the only version of the narrative that people consume, that’s fine. It sets up different tensions, different conflicts and different consequences for the characters, even if the key plot knot is the same. (Plot knot? is that a literary thing? It totally should be – like a twist, but like, the keystone instead. The sine qua non of the literary exercise that is a novel.)
I love the movie’s emphasis on Calcifer, and the deft shifts between old-Sophie and young-Sophie at narratively significant moments.
Oh, and the soundtrack is wonderful.
Yes! Read it, watch it, compare the two.
As I said earlier, I think it would make a great setwork for early high-schoolers, because you could talk in depth about the character arcs, foreshadowing, and the differences in interpretation between the book and movies.
Aside from being an excellent chacha that I’m pretty sure was on the list for so many medal tests I scribed for, danced, ran the music for… and so on, this song is really excellent for its fabulous seventies styling in the music video.
It also contains one of my favourite ever mondegreens, as first noted by the comedian Peter Kay in his stand-up routines. A mondegreen is the official term for misheard lyrics, such as Taylor Swift’s “starbucks lovers”, or Hendrix’s “kiss this guy”. I know lots of people spend time trying to get to the hidden messages behind lyrics, and most of the time, it’s just a crossed connection in the brain. People are so good at pattern recognition, and when a pattern isn’t quite complete, your brain sometimes goes in and fills in some details to make it more sense.
Anyway, this song’s mondegreen?
“You got me begging you for bird seed”.
Or not 😀
My other all-time favourite inaccurate lyric may not so much be misheard as intentionally mis-directed: “Who you gonna call? THOSE BASTARDS!”. I challenge you not to sing that whenever you hear Ghostbusters going forward.
Do you have any favourite misheard lyrics, or ‘family versions’ of well-known songs?
When this song came on, I had an immediate flashback to being about fourteen, and being so very cool.
And by cool, I mean, not at all cool, not even connected to the right century of music for my classmates.
Dad introduced me to the music of his youth, including Madness (Our house… in the middle of our street). Because I was going through this very _edgy_ ska phase that I thought was just the best, I lapped it up. All the two-tone stuff, all the checkerboard vans, everything. Much eyeliner. In reflection, and in reviewing those early facebook photos, I realise that I didn’t really get the whole ska aesthetic – I tended to pair my checkerboard vans with multicoloured hippy pants.
Also, a note on _edgy_… I was never edgy. I was too much an excitable puppy of a human to go through an emo phase (my dad used to wind me up a bit by calling it emmo), and too much a people-pleaser and nerd to act out. Honestly, one of the things I regret most about high school was sticking to the rules too closely. I didn’t drink as a teen, even at that one infamous party after a school play that was a wall-to-wall disaster. I attended… for all of about fifteen minutes, before I went to sleep over at my equally nerdy friend’s house. I think we were the only people in the grade who got more than six hours’ sleep that night.
Madness has a nostalgia to it. Full of interesting people, interesting dance moves, interesting clothes. Having the heavy heavy sound of madness, or House of Fun blaring… what an excellent jam. 🙂
“Standing in a crowded room” – sheesh. Nothing like six months of behavioural conditioning and anxiety to make something that seemed so natural seem so damn strange. Early on, I watched movies and got upset because the characters weren’t keeping their distance. It was so weird. Now, I wonder what the hangups are that we will have for years to come. For example, having recently come from the Cape Town water crisis, in which we were limited to 25l per person per day, and got, erm, creative with hygiene and flushing the loo, to very rainy (famously very rainy) Manchester, Alex and I still find it difficult to shake some of those waterwise habits. According to the water company, we use less water than they estimate for a single person, and there’re two of us. So, bearing that in mind, will we find ourselves in years to come using feet and elbows to press buttons and push open doors?
I was part of a writing webinar last night, and someone asked the speaker how she thinks we’re going to cope with 2020 in our writing, films, series and other art forms going forward. Are we going to just collectively ignore the year? Or are we going to turn it into crazy suspense? Like, the gripping anxiety of the early phases really could be a sci-fi movie, but they never really get into the long-term ground-down phase. I suppose war movies don’t either – the battles are the questionable ‘glamour’, and you don’t get scene after scene of living life on rations or building a bomb shelter in the back garden.
“Hold my hand” – I’ve also been thinking through the importance of social processes through lockdown. I’ve been really thankful for incredible friends and family members who keep me going, even when we’re so far apart. Nothing like a little call home, or call to my sister or a friend to perk me up out of the depths of despair.
This is song number one on a 100 Upbeat Songs list on Spotify. I feel like I’ve got my evening’s kitchen mosying a soundtrack. There’s nothing like a good little kitchen boogie.
Think about songs you like, that give you that kitchen boogie feeling, and stick one on. If you need inspiration, here’s that Spotify playlist. Dance your lil heart out. Go on, it’ll make your day better.
I’m really looking forward to going on an adventure. I officially felt incredibly cooped yesterday. I’ve been going through waves of coping better and then worse by turn. I am sure I am not the only one, and this turns into a bit of a maudlin reflection on being a badly-behaved little moaner, so if it’s not what you need right now, please click away.
The song’s weird, and not exactly upbeat. I feel like it’s musically similar to “Ex’s & Oh’s” by Elle King, or rather that the later song is similar to it.
Anyway, I’ve been a bit down about the challenges of being stuck at home, even though I have a lovely home, and share it with a lovely human. I’ve just got a feeling of needing to go on an adventure, and expand my horizon a bit. I’ve been holding very fast to the idea of getting a car, and soon, because it will give us so much more space we can go and see, even if we aren’t ready to go into a pub or anything.
In that direction, I’m going to plan a cycle adventure on my bike (that has a name) for this weekend or sometime soon, and I’m going to cycle through to town, or down to Chorlton to the library, or maybe down the Salford arm of the Bridgewater Canal. Or maybe even up to the University to have a look at work from the banks of the River Irwell, and visit the beautiful space of Peel Park.
I should be thankful for this time that I’ve got at the moment, and the lack of adventures. Yesterday, between having strop about one thing (the dishes) and another (disagreeing over workout music – yes, I was a real nightmare yesterday), I managed to get a sizeable chunk of writing done, and do some of my plotting course. I’m really looking forward to making some writerly friends through it 🙂
Other achievements for the week: got a Tesco delivery (which is the delivery bloke’s achievement), but it contained some cheapish wine that I don’t feel like I have to hang onto for a special occasion. I can just decide to have some wine because I feel like it. I’m sure all the South Africans must be really chuffed that they can now too. Other achievement: scrubbed the ceiling of the bathroom with some magic cleaning stuff, and it is now mostly spotless and shining and smelling like bleach. Gotta celebrate the little things, if you don’t see any big things to celebrate on the horizon.
Goal for the day: Milne, you gotta keep yourself going with a burst of endorphins in the form of exercise, and then, well, probably congratulate yourself with a biscuit.
So, my excellent sister-in-law sent me a very excellent bardcore song a while ago. What a wonderful genre of internet weirdness that you kind of have to just let wash over yourself, absorb, go ‘that was weird, let’s listen to more!’. I mean, I was a good target for this, considering I spent two years of my life writing arguments about fourteenth century relationship dynamics for my MA. But I like it for so much more than that it is kind of weirdly relatable and nerdy.
Part of why I like it so much, aside from the sheer brilliance of its lyrical and musical niceties that make for chuckles, and then get stuck in your head for hours, is that it represents what the internet has done. Like, if you told someone in 2004 that there would be a big video search engine onto which people would upload all manner of weird, weird videos, and they would get millions (yes, millions) of views, that someone might think you were crazy. I mean, back in 2004 was before youtube even debuted, and the internet as we use it today was but a twinkle in O’Reilly’s and Dougherty’s eyes.
The sheer accessibility of content online has meant that people can make what makes them happy, and there will undoubtedly be several people who will find the products of their labour, and slavishly follow them.
I find this incredibly comforting.
I recognise the hellish skill in these bardcore tunes, and I know it must take Hildegard von Blingin’ (yes, really) much skill and time to analyse and redraft the lyrics and orchestrate, record and edit the songs, and I don’t want to cast any nasturtiums (a phrase borrowed from a friend) on the importance of well-made content.
But also, like, it’s pretty niche. Like, who would have thought that there would be a whole raft of people like me who are medieval fanciers or maybe renaissance nerds, who also appreciate musical trickery and riffing on pop music? Hildegard von Blingin’, that’s who.
And, if she’s got herself going, got a following and is having fun with her craft, then I can too. And if I only ever have a niche following of people I can press-gang into reading my books ahem close friends and family, then that’s all I really need. Hopefully, I’ll end up with my very own corner of nerds on the interwebs who think the same sort of stuff is cool as I do. Then we can all geek out together.
So I’ve been writing this for a little over a month, including various notes scribbled in notebooks, plot points scoped out in MS Excel, and the Scrivener project I wrote on the trial for twenty-something days before coughing up for the full version. This week, my aim was to keep it ticking over, but take a few more breaks so I didn’t completely wear myself out by pushing when I didn’t feel like it – I have several (60) thousand words more to go on this Zero Draft, and it would suck to not finish because I burned myself out on it.
Draft Zero/Fast Draft (I thought I should make this clear. It’s gonna need some hectic rewriting when I finally get to the end).
Word count: 22 839 (approx. 27%)
Words this week: 4854
Best day: Friday (1590)
I’ve basically noticed this week that I wrote more most days I wrote, even though I wrote with less reliable frequency.
I feel like a wimp for saying this, but for several days of this past week, I’ve simply felt too hot to write. After sitting at my desk for 8 hours for work, the last thing I felt like was carrying on, or worse, sitting between my laptop and its heat-generation and the leather couch that I melted into. The heat made me tired, cranky and unproductive. On the plus side though, I learned how to be a bit more gentle with myself.
I’ve also started to tire of writing a blog a day, as this saps some energy (and therefore words) from the bigger, more significant project. I don’t really know what a good number would be to stop doing the daily post. Part of me is tempted to keep going til I hit 100, but that’s almost a month off, so another part of me is saying that I should can it at a different milestone. I’ll keep ticking ’em over so long, but I’m on a blog-publishing streak of 70, and a lightning blog streak of 55.
Sort of kind of hit/missed my goal for the week, of taking 2-3 days off… I feel like I took more slack time than writing time, even if, when I look at the days and word counts, I did okay, and did only take 3 days off.
Big wins for the week include that I’ve finally got to the murder, and it’s taken a while, but I’m glad I’m here. Now I can go about figuring out the finer details. This also marks the last bit that I had substantially planned (more than just a bare two line sketch in the scene file on Scrivener). That means that this week will likely be a lot of planning in bullet points for the next 25% of the novel so I can write with direction.
The other big win for the week (my Freudian typo there was ‘win for the weak’) was that I’, over 25% of the planned word count through. I think that’s a pretty respectable milestone. I’ve now passed my most recent master’s thesis in length, and I’m not far off my first master’s thesis.
Goals for next week
An honest goal for the week would be to sketch out Act 2 of the novel in more depth, ideally reaching at least the same word count as I did this week.
I’m also starting Writers’ HQ’s course, Plotstormers with Friends, in which I hope to plan out my SciFi idea I’ve had, so I may split my writing time. My other goal with this course is to make some writer buddies. 🙂
So I’ve been keeping up pretty well with a reasonable reading rate over the past few weeks, reading to devour some books, and nibbling at others (looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.) Lydia Syson’s Mr Peacock’s Possessions was book three out of my box of stories that I ordered – a cover that promised some mystery and intrigue, and a blurb that promised a historical story featuring challenging and fraught relationships between settlers and Pacific Islanders. (A note on book two: I began it, but ended up tossing it aside because it was a bit too ‘white saviour writes about the corruption and poverty of Africaaaaa’ for my taste. I’m a bit stuck on how to dispose of it, because I don’t want to send it out into a charity bookshop where an unsuspecting reader could pick it up and internalise more misconceptions about life in Africa through one white man’s murder mystery plot. I may staple Binyavanga Wainaina’s excellent essay entitled “How to write about Africa” to the front page as a way of pointing its potential new reader in a better direction.)
The blackbird on the cover comes up thematically over the course of the novel, and the rich flora and plant matter give it a Gauguin-esque feel of lush vegetation, as recorded by an artist. So, I got stuck into this one, with slight anxiety after my postcolonial-literature-education reaction to the previous book, but I think that it was different enough to my sphere of reference that I was much better able to read it.
The book tells the story of the Peacock family, who arrive and settle a remote island in the South Pacific region, north of New Zealand, but pretty far from everywhere. They arrive to pick up where the previous settlers left off, growing fruit and planting crops, making the island into a reasonable restocking point for ships on the whaling route and other long-distance Pacific journeys. Set in 1879, it’s a story of hard living, with the family very much forced into rough subsistence quickly by inadequate and spoiled food stores. After several months of barely surviving and seeing only one ship with other people on it, a ship brings through a group of Pacific Islanders (called the Rock Fellows) to help them work the land. At the time of the newcomers’ arrival, the eldest son of the family goes missing, never to be seen again. The family and their new collaborators struggle with the disappearance of the child, which is one thing that leads to mistrust and strained community dynamics. The story comes to a head with the discovery of the boy’s body and the ultimate fracture this causes the family and the community they’ve built.
Throughout the novel, there are two main characters through whose perceptions of the world we are directed. Namely, they are young Lizzie Peacock, who starts out as her father’s right-hand (as much as he attempts to berate her brother Albert into that role), and Kalala, one of the Rock Fellows who has been brought to the island to labour for the family, in return for pay in the form of calicos for their family.
Lizzie is a headstrong young adventurer who, if not for the historical era, would probably be called a tomboy. Her main motivation is to please her father, so she works hard on settling the island to make it their own. Her relationships with her siblings, particularly with her sister Ada and Albert, create a large amount of family tension. Ada and Albert seem to be at odds with their father and his incredible drive for dominion over the land, animals and even his family, while Lizzie is determined to make this new settlement work. Lizzie also builds a relationship with one of the workmen who is brought to the island, which ultimately changes how she views her father and how she relates to her siblings.
The Rock Fellow she builds the relationship with (not a romantic one, though there are some kind of hints/mild tension in that direction) is called Kalala. He has a very frank way of looking at the world, and is informed by his Pacific Islander roots and his time spent with a missionary called Mr Reverend (well, that’s what they called him, at any rate). Kalala’s steady bearing is interesting, because he provides a balance or counterpoint to Mr Peacock’s single-minded approach to the island and to his family. Kalala and his brother, Solomona, seem quiet, studious and well-mannered, going against what stereotypes Mrs Peacock believes of them. Kalala weighs his Pacific Islander heritage and mission-school education with what he sees of the Peacock family and their life, and often seems to marvel at how limited their perceptions are.
One key theme of the novel is dominion, both in terms of possession of land and people, and settling the land. The historical context provides a rich backdrop for challenging considerations of people’s place in the world, with the Peacock family moving around, unable to establish themselves as successful settlers wherever they go, and the group of Islanders, who seem more in control of themselves and their environment. The title, too, makes you consider who or what exactly constituted Mr Peacock’s possessions. And what gives him the right of possession in any case?
The conflict between the Pacific Islanders, called ‘kanakas’ in the book (a term which I have researched and is now considered derogatory, as I expected) and the white settlers is tied to the exploitation of the people from various islands in the South Pacific and Melanisia, through kidnapping and deception, essentially amounting to slave trading. Kalala’s father was the victim of this practice, called blackbirding (hence the picture on the front of the book). I think this theme, while central to some of the book’s conflict was underdeveloped, and there could have been some rich scenes between Mr Reverend and his flock, who suffered due to this practice. It’s very much more an undercurrent than an in-your-face dissection of the issue, and could be discussed with greater attention to Mr Peacock and his approach even to his own family. Does he blackbird his wife and children, kidnapping them from comfortable settler existence to turn them into indentured labourers building his dream?
Another significant theme running through the novel is religion. The Pacific Islanders ironically bring with them far stronger religion than the Peacock family does; they have grown up at a missionary outpost, were well-educated (compared to the illiterate Peacock children) and even feature a trainee pastor among their number. It reads a bit like The Poisonwood Bible in reverse, because the white settlers ‘benefit’ from the religion bought to them on their remote island. The fanaticism of Mr Peacock is certainly reminiscent Poisonwood’s Nathan Price, even if they are fanatical in different directions. In both cases, paternal fantaticism leads to the death of a beloved child in their new homes, and a fragmentation of their families following this tragedy. I enjoyed the irony of Solomona bringing his bible to the island; I think it checks a lot of preconceptions and stereotypes about civilisation and conquering that come through in less self-aware literature telling colonial stories.
Structure and timing
In terms of the novel’s structure, it varies between flashbacks to ‘Before’, which is variably before the Peacocks arrived on the island, to their struggle in setting up their settlement, all the way until the arrival of the boat bringing the other inhabitants of their island and Albert’s fateful disappearance. The Before sections are told in past tense, with a focus on Lizzie and her journey.
The story of the ‘present’ (not labeled as such) is told in present tense, adding to the suspense of the unfolding events. Interestingly, the bits of the present story focusing on Lizzie are still told in the third person, whereas the sections told from Kalala’s perspective are told in first person. The agency shown in this, and that he is given the first chapter, continues to flip the narrative from the white settler with all the power (or even white settler encountering the power of the world and being found wanting) to a more interesting and nuanced postcolonial narrative.
In general, the novel deals with its subject matter with sensitivity and clearly a decent amount of work towards uncovering and incorporating the area’s history.
Yes, I enjoyed reading the novel. I enjoyed it much more than the largely quite similar Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, as I found it less preachy and better structured in terms of its rising and falling action.
If you come across it, it’d be worth reading. I’d happily circulate my copy into the world – I’m not planning to re-read.
I will likely have a look at Syson’s other works, because I like her literary touch.