I have a confession to make.
I adore Punchdrunk. I loved The Drowned Man so very, very much that I’m almost ashamed to say how many times I went to watch it (almost!). And I am very grateful that, for many people, it was an eye-opener: and many people who may have steered clear of theatre before are now seeking it out – the weirder the better.
However! I’m so, so tired of people comparing every subsequent production they watch to Punchdrunk and The Drowned Man. I don’t think I can deal with one more review of a production as “Punchdrunkesque”. It’s unfair to a lot of smaller theatre companies without Punchdrunk’s budget to be judged by that yardstick. Stop it with the “Well, it’s not The Drowned Man…” Duh. If it were The Drowned Man, it’d be The Drowned Man. #Logic
Let’s all agree to judge a show on its own merits from now on? That is the only way that our beloved immersive theatre will flourish.
Cool. Now that that little rant is out of the way, I want to tell you about a fantastic performance I went to see (experience? live? immerse myself in?) over the weekend. Shelter Me is the debut production for the circus troupe Circumference, developed in conjunction with – and hosted by – Theatre Delicatessen. This genre-defying piece is a feat of imagination, combining immersive theatre, circus, music, and technology to create a stunning 90-minute-long experience.
The concept of this show is evidence that Circumference have their fingers on the pulse of the London theatre scene. Shelter Me taps into the current trend of immersive theatre where the audience is free to roam, as well as the growing popularity of integrating technology into art and artifice in order to engage the audience (done to great effect recently by A Hollow Body).
Indeed, the technology is an effective feature in Shelter Me. As you pick up your tickets at the door and check in your bag, you’re advised to keep your phone to hand and make sure it’s charged (they provide a charging station), as well as to turn the volume up and to take as many photos as you please – effectively turning the convention of performance as a quiet, hallowed, secret thing on its head. The show also employs a ‘Buddy System’ – audience members are paired up with other audience members and tasked with texting each other throughout the show to share photos and experiences. It’s a nice touch in theory; but in practice it can be a little clumsy: my buddy had another buddy besides myself, so our interaction was very sparse. It didn’t detract from the show, though. I happily roamed around, snapping pictures of the beautiful visuals.
The venue is The Guardian’s old offices in Farringdon – an interesting space, although it suffers from a slight lack of flow. That is all forgiven, though, as the set design is exquisite, rummaging is encouraged, and attention to detail is present throughout. The heart of the production takes place in a slightly surreal, dream-like set of rooms. Light and sound are used beautifully to set the tone, and the audience is encouraged to explore – but often nudged in the direction of an interesting scene.
My favourite aspect was the interaction between the audience the performers, who tell short anecdotes, sustain eye contact, and explore the sense of touch to establish a connection: the gentle squeeze of your hand makes you complicit and pulls you into the narrative. And this is what the piece explores: human connection. From love to loss to the collective making of a cup of tea, it all hinges on connection, and how trust is the underpinning factor in order for a successful connection to occur.
Most spectacular are the acrobatics. Circumference is, of course, a circus troupe and it is no surprise that this is their strong point. The performers fly, walk on air in a parkour-inspired sequence, drop backward into trust falls, and end with a finale that is uplifting and completely affirming – all with an expression of absolute joy on their faces. You can tell they love what they do, and it’s a pleasure to watch them.
[Shelter Me is on until July 12. Get tickets here.]
[Grace Carter as Alice – image source]
In order to mark the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s beloved classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the subterranean Vaults at Waterloo have been beautifully transformed into a sprawling underland… wonderworld… wonderground. No, no, that’s all wrong, I’m certain! I must have been changed for Mabel! Produced by Les Enfants Terribles/Emma Brunjes and directed by Oliver Lansley and James Seager, Alice’s Adventures Underground is a promenade journey through a gorgeous series of scenes from Wonderland, and a feat of logistics, with all bits working like clockwork and all cues met to ensure the experience runs as smoothly as a dream.
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.” — Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Though led by an animated and immensely talented cast, the true hidden stars of the show are the designers: Samuel Wyer (set), Nina Dunn (video), Max Humphries/Finn Caldwell (puppets) and Mike Gunning (lighting). It’s thanks to these guys that Wonderland is as… well… wondrous as it truly is. The audience enter through the disarrayed writing room of Lewis Carroll, and then journey through the pages (quite literally) and down the rabbit hole, where they are asked to make the crucial choice: EAT ME or DRINK ME.
I went twice (!) with my friend Hannah, a devout Alice fan, and chose differently each time. Either journey converges in certain places and separates in others. Audience members are each divided into suits (hearts, diamonds or clubs, spades) and each suit in turn goes on a different mission which is apparent at the end. Those who, like me, seek out shows that integrate audience interaction, will be very pleased by this show; but those who prefer to observe will not be disappointed either.
By far my favourite scene was the incredibly beautiful song of the mock turtle in a docklands scene under the mournful moon: here, all the stops have been pulled and the scene will stay with you for a long time to come. However, all scenes contain their own piece of magic, and Hannah and I spent the entire 90 minutes (both times) wandering around in open-mouthed wonder, feeling absolutely like children and buzzing even after we’d left.
[Photo by Tristram Kenton. Image source]
Last July, I had the good fortune to attend a Contact Improvisation workshop organised by London-based dance community, Irreverent Dance. Any reservations I may have had about how my body and its abilities would be received by my new peers were immediately quelled as soon as I walked into the studio. I was surrounded by a group of people of all shapes and genders and ethnic backgrounds. All had one thing in common: they were there to dance.
The workshop lasted three hours: the most positive three hours I had had in a long time. At no point in the class did I feel ‘incapable’ or judged’. What I did feel was this: fun, a sense of community, and joy at finding my body was able to do so much more of this contact improv stuff than I had thought it would be.
I left that workshop feeling energised and happy. I had got a workout, flooded myself with happy hormones, and met some really amazing people in the process.
Recently, I learnt Irreverent Dance is looking to take the next step. With 500+ students, jam-packed class schedules, and two years of experience below the belt, Irreverent Dance is looking to settle into its own premises: Europe’s first ever gender neutral and body positive dance studios.
Irreverent Dance needs our help to make this happen. By donating even just £5 to their Kickstarter campaign, we can be a part of this project and, I like to think, a little part of dance history.
If you believe that movement is fundamentally human, and should not be policed; if you believed that every person, regardless of gender or size or ability, should be able to enter a dance studio without feeling judged or inferior, and just be able to get out there and celebrate their bodies, please consider helping out. You can find more information on the Kickstarter campaign and make your donation here.
Please help Irreverent Dance get the word out. Share this post on Facebook and Twitter, or link to the Irreverent Dance Kickstarter campaign on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or your own blogs.
This week, instead of ice buckets and selfies, my Facebook feed has been taken up by the eloquent, moving call to action made by actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson at her HeForShe UN address. “This is the feminism I stand for,” said my friends. “What an amazing speech”; “Too good not to share!”
A part of me feels vindicated. The speech is being shared not only by the ‘usual suspects’ – i.e. those Facebook friends of mine who know their Germaine Greer from their Hélène Cixous, and those whose response to rape jokes isn’t the usual “It’s just a joke, luv” – no; this video is showing up on the walls of people who have been mostly silent and passive, or who have outright disassociated themselves from the label of ‘feminist’ for fear of being seen as man-hating.
When I first saw the speech being described as “game-changing”, I have to admit I rolled my eyes a little bit. I mean, I love Emma Watson: she’s talented and articulate, but it felt to me like the words she was saying were things my feminist friends and I have been saying for years now. Things like: we can only push so far forward with this cause unless we’ve got the men on our side; we are not man haters, we believe in gender equality; and we believe a patriarchal society is harmful to both women and men, as any roles imposed on the basis of gender are obviously detrimental and a hindrance to a person fulfilling their subjective reality and reaching their potential. Things like: the sexualisation of unconsenting women by the media is not okay; and it is not alright that women are paid less than men for the same job because they might have a child someday. If we had been saying these things for so long, I thought, how is it “game-changing” when they are said by somebody famous?
But I humbly bow my head to Watson. In just over ten minutes, she has managed to make more people understand the point of feminism than so many others have done in countless blog posts, Facebook posts, and so on. And maybe that is because she is famous. And maybe that is okay. After all, what use is fame if it is not being used for good? And what can be more good than raising awareness and fighting for equal rights for all humans, regardless of where they were born, and regardless of whether they are men or women? Using one’s fame to spotlight a difficult problem is a laudable thing, and if that is what it takes for people to recognise the problem, then so be it.
Using one’s fame to spotlight a difficult problem is a laudable thing, and if that is what it takes for people to recognise the problem, then so be it.
Sadly, the video had only been around for a few hours when the dangers of publicly declaring oneself a feminist became apparent. While my Facebook friends responded to the speech with admiration, a group of people decided to react in a different way altogether: by threatening to publish stolen, presumably nude pictures of Emma Watson on 4Chan – the notorious corner of the internet where similar stolen photographs of a large number of female celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna were published earlier this month.
This reaction is shocking, but hardly a surprise. Unfortunately, when one comes out as a feminist and dares to speak out about gender issues, threats, personal criticism and harassment are par for the course. It is a large reason why so many of us stop talking altogether: once bitten twice shy. The backlash ranges from seemingly ‘harmless’ comments such as “Go buy a sense of humour”, to counterproductive reminders to “Check your privilege”, to personal insults such as “You are so ugly nobody would ever want to fuck you”, all the way to serious rape and death threats.
In Watson’s case, this has taken the form of a website entitled ‘Emma You Are Next’, which features a clock purporting to be a countdown to a mass-publishing of stolen photos of the actor. “She makes stupid feminist speeches at UN, and now her nudes will be online, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH,” wrote one user – a comment which is deeply revealing of the motivation behind the threats. It is a form of retaliation against a speech which threatens to remove a group of people from their position of privilege or, more accurately, which threatens to empower women to occupy that position of privilege together with their male counterparts.
In her speech, Watson said the following: “I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.”
Those words ring true with me, and with my own experience of identifying as a feminist. It is seen as unattractive to suggest there might be a problem with society and, within a patriarchal society in which reducing women to sexual objects is a norm, the easiest (and sadly, often the most effective) way to minimise the perceived threat of a woman questioning these norms is to impose that sexual objectification onto her and “put her back in her place”.
“I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.”
On the site threatening to expose Watson’s nude photos, beside the countdown clock, is a photo of Watson herself wiping away a tear. It is a powerful image, symbolic of the drive behind the website itself: to humiliate a woman who has made the brave decision to use her fame for good; to terrorise a human being by subverting her sexuality and using it against her; and to serve as a warning to all those who are thinking about standing up for this cause, that any such initiatives will be met by a most brutal attack on their privacy.
What is strangely heartening, however, is this: that by doing so, these terrorists (for that is what they are) have further highlighted the dire need for gender equality. They have made it clear that in this society, a woman’s words are not acceptable unless they appease the patriarchal consensus. They have illustrated the fact that there was never a time as good as this to galvanise together, men and women, to work towards a better world in which all human beings are equal, and every single person has the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Count me in.
Edit: Sept 24 14:28 – I’ve been informed that the ‘nude photo leak’ was exposed as a hoax. I believe that, hoax or not, my argument still holds water: whilst doing research to put this post together, I had a little wade in the comments sections of various news articles. Many were in favour of the speech, but many others had posted comments along the lines of “If she gets her tits out I’ll stand with her”. I’m glad this turned out to be a hoax, though anything which threatens a person’s privacy still a pretty awful way to go about anything, but it doesn’t erase the millions and millions of threats sent to feminist activists as an attempt to shut them up. When I write about gender issues, it is from a place of concern not only for myself and other women, but also for those decent men, the vast majority of men I know, who are affected negatively by the behaviour of those who perpetuate misogynism. If there is a tone of hatred in my words, it is not for any individual, but for the social structure which allows people to be harassed and objectified and does not move to stand in their defence.
Oceanians gather for the daily Two Minutes’ Hate. [image source]
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel that, no matter when it is read, serves as a cautionary tale for the future. “We should never have trusted them,” say those wary of Big Brother – a totalitarian Party operating on a global scale and controlling the people through nonsensical mantras (“Freedom is slavery – War is peace…”), omniscient telescreens, and a distillation of language which aims to abolish “thoughtcrime” by removing access to words – the very vehicle by which we express all thoughts, subversive or otherwise.
Played out over 101 minutes, this stunningly eloquent adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, which transferred from the Almeida to the West End’s Playhouse last April, offers a fresh and provocative interpretation of the tale of Winston Smith’s Oceania. The show serves as a good introduction to the genre for newcomers, and will also appeal to those who, like me, hold Orwell’s text close to heart.
As the clock strikes thirteen, the curtain rises on a drab world of offices and colourless homes on the bottom half of the set. The top half is taken up by a large screen, on which several scenes and details are shown, including Winston’s original crime: writing the first word – or date, rather, a dubious “1984?” – in his contraband diary, in which his is writing his story “for the unborn”. By writing, we are told, the writer imagines a future and confirms a past. And what worse crime could one commit in a world in which only the present exists?
And then we understand, as the scene unfolds, the framing device for the play: Winston’s story is being told as part of a reading group discussion some time after 2050 and the downfall of Big Brother, in a world which is to all intents and purposes just like ours. The question pondered is whether the book is a work of fiction or a historical account by an author whose act of rebellion has led to him being “deleted” from public records and, therefore, from history.
Set changes consisting of dramatic bursts of neon lighting followed by short intervals of silent darkness add to the overall buildup of anxiety as Winston struggles to keep track of what is real.
Sam Crane’s Winston Smith is a broken man, driven to near-madness by the regime. He “deletes” people (unpersons) for a living and so knows what his fate will be if he disobeys the party. Nevertheless, he is compelled to revolt, and this compulsion is propelled forward when a woman, whom he had initially suspected of being Thoughtpolice, confesses her love for him.
Julia, played by Hara Yannas, is a sensual rebel, concerned with “killing Big Brother” through acts of pleasure: sex, chocolate, coffee. Each delight is a dagger in the Party’s heart. She is, as Winston angrily calls her, “only a rebel from the waist down”. But in a world of thought control and the denial of pleasure, even sex is a massively political act.
The Two Minutes’ Hate – a powerful device in the novel, the impetus for which is not unfamiliar if one has had the ill-fortune of encountering the comments sections of online news stories – is handled beautifully and brutally in the play. Up on the large screen flash images of the enemy du jour, who is captured and beaten down, thanking Big Brother for curing him before he is shot dead. Meanwhile, the citizens of Oceania watch and rage against this man who has dared to defy the Party.
We are reminded of this scene later in Room 101 by Tim Dutton’s O’Brien, who is at first somewhat bland, and then quickly transforms into an intimidating figure who towers over Winston. Big Brother, he says, does not tolerate subversive thoughts – “not even in a brain waiting for a bullet”. All rebels must be cleansed before they are killed. All must carry but one thought: a singular love for Big Brother.
And so when Winston begins his diary, and then starts his love affair with Julia, his road to the dreaded Room 101 is already laid out before him. In one of the most effective set transformations I’ve ever seen, Winston and Julia’s shared room, their inner sanctum, folds away to become the stark, whitewashed Room 101, a place where there is no darkness – only searing lights and unimaginable torture. Or, rather, the most fundamentally imaginable torture, which leads to the story’s inevitable conclusion.
In a world like ours, where Big Brother has lost its ominous connotations and has become the voyeuristic prolefeed that regularly disgraces our television sets, stories such as this one are needed to jolt the viewer into active, critical thought. How like Newspeak is our lazy, abbreviated language of text messaging? How unsettled should we be that our sexuality lives on the border between taboo and neurosis driven by a media which simultaneously promotes and vilifies the plastic and impersonal bodies we deem as a beauty ideal? How like the Two Minutes’ Hate are those awful tabloids that package vitriol into attractive layouts and sell it to us?
Watch Headlong’s 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre until August 23. Click here for more information.
1. There is no lunch better than a couple of slices of Maltese bread with good olive oil, tomatoes, salt and pepper, and an ice-cold Cisk to wash it down.
2. If you leave Malta to live abroad, you will eventually end up with a group of friends which unfailingly includes a number of Maltese.
3. Similarly, if you have left Malta and look forward to a holiday back home, you will return to find many of your friends no longer live there either.
4. A true friend brings you a supply of Twistees, galletti and gbejniet when they visit. Bonus friend points if they also manage to squeeze a couple of bottles of Kinnie into their suitcase.
5. You will never admit it, but you secretly look forward to the Eurovision and even feel an inexplicable surge of pride when the Maltese singer takes to the stage.
6. There is no better way to end a long night out than stopping for a breakfast of pastizzi in Rabat.
7. There is no such thing as the six degrees of separation in Malta. Even in extreme cases, it’s three at most.
8. You still remember all the words to most of the hymns you were made to sing in school.
9. Driving around the island alone at night when the streets are empty is relaxing and wonderful. Driving around the island at any other time of day will turn even the most mild-mannered of us into a ferocious insult-monger.
10. Nothing is quite so symbolic of summer in Malta as the blanket of stifling heat you experience when you land at Luqa Airport and step off the plane.
11. Family meals last at least 4 hours, feature at least 10 people, and include at least one older person asking whether you’ve any plans to pop a baby or two out anytime soon.
12. You are not patriotic… until a book, movie or TV show mentions Malta. Suddenly, you’re the proudest Maltese ever.
13. A foreigner has joked that you are “a Malteaser… like the chocolate!” and thought they were being hilarious and original. They were not.
14. Even if you never speak Maltese at home, it turns into a super handy top secret language when you are abroad with friends.
15. If you are in London and desperately need to bump into somebody Maltese, just stop by Primark by Marble Arch.
16. You will always pretend you are not Maltese when you bump into Maltese people at Primark by Marble Arch.
17. You have a substantial amount of family in Australia, Canada, the US or the UK. You have never met any of them, but many of them still try to add you on Facebook.
18. You miss the guy who used to come around door to door selling fresh Maltese bread when you were a child. Most of all, you miss buying the bread and stuffing your face with it while it was still warm.
19. The best thing about festi are those mini doughnuts.
20. “I am from Malta.” “Is that in Italy?”
[Martin Quinn as Oskar and Rebecca Benson as Eli in Let The Right One In. Image Source]
I went into this show with no expectations whatsoever. I’ve never read the bestselling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, nor have I seen the Swedish and American film adaptations. All I knew was that the story somehow involved vampires.
Never having liked horror all that much (apart from a brief flirtation with Anne Rice’s vampires as a teen), I did not expect to be all too impressed. The recent revival of vampires in pop culture has made me all the more reluctant to pay the genre too much attention. However, a last-minute dinner plan cancellation led to me buying a ticket to the show on a whim. Despite my hard-headedness, I was vaguely aware of the acclaim the show has been receiving (it is hard to orbit London’s theatre circles without doing so) and I was soon on my way to the Apollo in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.
It was only then I made the connection: this was the very same theatre whose ceiling had collapsed last December, injuring a number of audience-members. For a moment, I was nervous, but upon entering the theatre those fears were soon allayed: the building has been beautifully refurbished, and the domed ceiling has been turned into a firmament – with the moon, twinkly stars and bare tree branches clearly in sight. This night-sky painting echoes the mood of the show itself which, in this production by the National Theatre of Scotland, has been transposed from Sweden to somewhere near Dundee. An odd decision indeed, as the play retains a distinctly Nordic feel to it – from the Scandinavian names of the characters, to Ólafur Arnald’s musical score which is reminiscent of early Sigur Rós. The mood of the play, helped by designer Christine Jones’s stunningly bleak frosty forest set, whispers of ages-old Norse myths and folklore and winter melancholy – something my Swedish friend says is known as “svårmod”.
That said, Let The Right One In tells a story which is fundamentally about loneliness, and that is something which exists universally.
We meet awkward, bullied teenager (Martin Quinn) who manages to maintain a sense of hope and goodness despite everything. He is all limbs and tentative shrugs and is – after all – only a boy, who still plays at knights and dragons and who loves nothing better than a handful of sweets from the local shop. He lives on an estate with his single mother, portrayed sympathetically by Susan Vidler, who drinks to drown her sorrows and expects more attention from her child than he can give her.
Oskar’s life changes when he meets the new girl next door – Eli, played by Rebecca Benson, whose slightly irritating lilting delivery is more than made up for by her physical performance, which successfully toes the line between child and feral cat. Her Eli is fragile and pale, but her often strange movements and insightful lines betray a wisdom that comes only with age.
It is not long before we learn the truth: Eli is a centuries-old being who requires blood for sustenance, although she does not like being referred to as a vampire. She is a reluctant predator who has no choice but to kill to survive. We are not told why she is the way she is, only that she is who she is – Eli – and has been so for a very long time. We are only shown a couple of her kills, and it is just as well, because the show does not hold back, opting instead to build suspense which inevitably leads to its bloody denouement. In a nod to schlock horror, the show delights in the presence of dark, tarry blood to evoke visceral horror among the audience. The image of deep red blood staining the all-blanketing snow is a hard one to shake off.
Equally disturbing are the scenes of Oskar being relentlessly bullied at school, repeatedly called names and physically tormented. It is heartbreaking when he finally tells his well-meaning but ineffective gym teacher (Gavin Kean): “You could have done more.”
As outsiders, Oskar and Eli establish a connection and strive to defend each other, although Oskar does not fully understand the price of this friendship. On the other hand we, the audience, are offered a glimpse of hindsight through the character of Hakan (Clive Mendus) – ostensibly Eli’s downtrodden father, but whom we soon learn is her protector. He is infatuated by her, but has become weakened by age while Eli is perpetually youthful. We catch sight of the doomed circularity of it all, and wonder whether Oskar will someday suffer a similar fate.
The dialogue in the play is often cumbersome, and a few interpretative dance interludes (while I can understand the impetus behind them) often lead to a palpable drop in the show’s energy.
Even so, a constant air of wistfulness and tender humanity belies the production, which is haunting and often ethereal. Exploring themes such as loneliness, compassion, childhood, and companionship, it is one of the highlights of the current theatre season.
Let The Right One In is playing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, until September 27, 2014. For more information, click here.
Are you tired of all those ‘Things to do in your twenties’ articles yelling at you to travel the world? I am. While travelling the world is a really, really good idea, sometimes life throws a stones in your path which disallow you from spending your money on travels – or perhaps you’re not earning enough to save up for a long round-the-world trip. It’s alright – if you can’t spend thousands on travelling just yet, there is still hope: books. Yep, as always, books come to the rescue. It may not be quite the same as jetting off and seeing the sights, but with a little imagination, curling up in your favourite chair and picking up a book set in the destination of your dreams can scratch the wanderlust itch… at least until you can finally gather together the money to make it a reality.
To start off this series, let’s look at some brilliant books set in London. From classic to contemporary, these books offer up plenty of windows through which to gaze at the city of dreams, lights, misery and new beginnings.
1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)
Detailing a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a London socialite, the novel is one of Woolf’s best-known and best-loved. Look out at the world through the character’s eyes as she makes preparations for a party she is to host in the evening. The narrative travels back and forth in time, constructing a literary collage of the protagonist’s life, inner life, and the post-war society in which she lives. With the bruises of the recent war still visible in its fabric, London is more than a passive setting in the novel, and often takes centre stage with the author mentioning landmarks which both ground the story in a real location, and also serve as profound symbols for the characters’ lives. With themes as broad as feminism, homosexuality, existentialism and mental illness, Mrs Dalloway is often considered one of the most important fictional works of the 20th century.
Notable quote: “She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”
2. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (1996)
Neil Gaiman’s first novel, Neverwhere, is one of the most popular London novels, as well as one of the best-loved urban fantasy novels. The novel introduces us to Richard Mayhew – something of an underdog, and a newcomer to the city. When he meets an injured, homeless girl (or so he thinks) and helps her, he quickly finds himself in a strange new reality incorporating the city which exists around and below the city: London Below. Now trapped in this world, and on the run from a couple of malevolent time-travellers, he must make his journey through this new vision of London. Gaiman makes wonderful use of the London Underground and its many stops, creating – for example – a real court in which an Earl resides, a sublime Angel called Islington, and the explanation behind the ubiquitous warnings to ‘Mind the Gap’. Both hilarious and unsettling, the novel never takes itself too seriously, but it is clear that plenty of meticulous research has gone into creating the novel’s magical London. If you have ever dreamt of visiting London, this is definitely the book for you.
Notable quote: “Metaphors failed him, then. He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.”
3. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (2009)
Set mainly in London’s beautifully haunting Highgate Cemetery, where Niffenegger acted as a tour guide while she was researching this novel, Her Fearful Symmetry tells the story of a set of identical twins who inherit a flat in London when their aunt, who they have only met once, dies. Although their aunt and their mother, who were sisters, have been estranged for years, the twins decide to move to London as they come of age. A ghost story at its core, the novel skilfully builds characters and weaves a tapestry of delicate relationships between them – and this is what is most compelling. Touching upon the themes of love, loneliness, grief, and doppelgangers, the book takes an impossible premise and makes it plausible – all set within the stoney silence of the cemetery.
Notable quote: “There are several ways to react to being lost. One is to panic: this was usually Valentina’s first impulse. Another is to abandon yourself to lostness, to allow the fact that you’ve misplaced yourself to change the way you experience the world.”
4. London Fields, Martin Amis (1989)
Readers familiar with Amis’s work will know him to be a master at mixing dark humour, introspection, insight and anxiety, and this novel is solid evidence of this. An unlinear murder-mystery, London Fields is set in 1999, in a world which faces the looming threat of nuclear war, and a morally degraded London. A cast of grotesque, completely unredeemable characters assemble in a dank West London pub. The protagonist and narrator, Samson Young, has suffered from writer’s block for 20 years, is slowly dying of some terminal illness, and the novel opens with him expressing gratitude at having found an already-formed story just waiting to be written.
Notable quote: “People are chaotic quiddities living in one cave each. They pass the hours in amorous grudge and playback and thought experiment. At the campfire they put the usual fraction on exhibit, and listen to their own silent gibber about how they’re feeling and how they’re going down. We’ve been there. Death helps. Death gives us something to do. Because it’s a full time job looking the other way.”
5. White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000)
Whether you love it or can’t wrap your head around it, White Teeth is one of those ambitious, expansive novels that captures the essence of a society in flux. Met by great critical acclaim, it is the story of two wartime friends – a Bangladeshi man and an English man – and their families, and their lives in London after the war. It is an epic spanning a broad range of themes: from immigration and identity, to race and assimilation, and paints a vivid picture of a multicultural London.
Notable quote: “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”
6. Brick Lane, Monica Ali (2003)
In this celebrated novel, follow Nazneen – born in an idyllic village in Bangladesh in 1969 – whose life seems to have been left in the hands of the Fates. In her teens she is married off to an older man and moves to East London. Her beautiful younger sister, meanwhile, elopes with her first love, and the book explores their parallel lives in the two countries. Exploring themes of displacement, adultery, love, abuse, and survival, the book nevertheless retains its light tone and sense of humour, which keeps it from falling into the territory of melodrama and lends it a charmingly human touch.
Notable quote: “And so they entwined their lives to drink from the pools of each other’s sadness. From these special watering holes, each man drew strength.”
7. Tunnel Vision, Keith Lowe (2001)
Andy is a 20-something bookshop clerk who lives in London. He likes the London Underground… a lot. On the eve of his wedding to Rachel (whom he also met on the Tube), he makes a drunken bet with Rolf: he bets he can visit all of the London Underground stations in just one day. Only by completing this challenge can he get the Eurostar tickets to Paris, where his fiancee will be waiting for him.
Notable quote: “You see, the Tube isn’t like other railways. It’s happening, it’s now. It’s sexy.”
8. Saturday, Ian McEwan (2005)
Set in Fitzrovia over one single day – Saturday 15 February 2003 – the novel deals with the comings and goings of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne whose day culminates in a family dinner in the evening. On that particular Saturday, the protagonist goes about his chores whilst pondering a large demonstration happening that day against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the events which led to it. His day, however, is disrupted when he meets a violent man. In this novel, McEwan explores terrorism and violence, and the fragility of human life as seen from a clinical, medical perspective. Other themes include happiness, purpose, political engagement, and rationalism.
Notable quote: “He never believed in fate or providence, or the future being made by someone in the sky. Instead, at every instant, a trillion trillion possible futures; the pickiness of pure chance and physical laws seemed like freedom from the scheming of a gloomy god.”
9. A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch (1961)
Set in and around London, this satirical novel focuses on the lives and struggles of the middle classes. The protagonist, Martin – a 40-something wine merchant – is married and having an affair with a young academic. When his wife reveals she is leaving him for her psychoanalyst, he is shocked. Soon, he falls in love with yet another woman and uncovers a web of adultery, incest, and secrets best left alone. A study of bougeois hedonism, the novel is considered one of Murdoch’s most entertaining.
Notable quote: “There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship…”
10. The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene (1943)
Few writers can distil the essence of neurosis like Graham Greene. Set in London during the Blitz, this novel details the story of Arthur Rowe, who visits a forlorn fête in Bloomsbury and wins a cake. What he does not realise is that the cake was given to him by mistake, and contains something of great importance to the Germans and, upon accepting it, he has become involved in a grand conspiracy. The novel deals with mental disorder, fear, love, and the fleeting nature of memory.
Notable quote: “But it is impossible to go through life without trust; that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.”
- Doing the rounds all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds this last week was Ellen Page’s coming out speech, which happened on Feb 14 at a Human Rights Campaign conference for LGBT youths. It is an absolutely beautiful speech which is well worth the time it will take you to watch it.
- Four women took part in an experiment where they were photographed and Photoshopped to look like magazine-cover models. Their reactions will surprise you.
- The chances are that there is somebody in your life who is suffering from a form of depression. Here is how you can help them cope.
- Felix Barrett, director of Punchdrunk, talks about the future of storytelling in a digital age where everything is available at a click of your mouse.
- Back in 2011, the traditional Maltese buses were replaced with new models when the transport system was privatised. This video documents the final days of the old ‘xarabank’.
- I’ve linked to Christina Bianco videos before. The excellent performer does spot-on impressions of music’s greatest divas. Here she is with her cover of Let It Go from Disney’s Frozen.
- This is not an easy read, but it is essential. How the lines of consent are blurred, and admitting to yourself that, no, these things do not “just happen”.
- Joan Didion on telling stories and facing rejection.
- A list of 10 creative rituals you should definitely steal.
- If you’ve ever thought about the possibility of donating your eggs, this is a must-read.
- On a heartening note, doctors are now prescribing books as a way of dealing with depression. Reading helps us feel we are not alone, and helps us connect.
I love words.
I really, really love words. Their silent power to evoke reactions – some intellectual, some emotional, some even visceral. I love words – those arbitrary combinations of sounds which are at the core of language, which are so heavy with meaning. The love of words is a truth universal to all the writers I know.
Like most Maltese people, I am lucky enough to call two languages my mother tongues. I was raised speaking both English and Maltese at home and with friends. And while English is the language I think and write in, Maltese is a beautiful, complex language which will always influence my experience of the world. Because that is what words do. I’ve mentioned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here before – briefly, it suggests that language affects the way its speakers organise the world and, if you subscribe to this school of thought, that means that the more languages you are exposed to, the more rounded your world-view. My fascination with words has led me to learn three further languages to varying degrees of proficiency, and it always interests me to learn new idioms of the language because they give away so much about the history of that language and the mindset of the people who speak it.
My favourite thing of all, however, perhaps even more than the compulsion to trace the etymology of words back to their roots, is to come across words in other languages which are virtually untranslatable into English. Yes, you can paraphrase them to roughly explain them, but these do in one word what it would otherwise take you a whole sentence to achieve.
Here is a list of my favourite untranslatable words.
1. L’esprit de l’escalier (French). Literally ‘the spirit of the staircase’. This refers to the predicament of coming up with the perfect retort when the argument is over and it is too late to use it.
2. Ta’aburnee (Arabic). Literally ‘you bury me’. This is one which, like most things uttered at the height of romance, is both dramatic and slightly morbid. It means that you hope to die before this person does so you may never have to suffer his or her loss.
3. Toska (Russian). Vladimir Nabokov describes this word most poignantly as: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
4. Wabi-sabi (Japanese). This lovely word refers to the act of finding beauty in life’s flaws and imperfections, and accepting them as they are.
5. Torschlusspanik (German). Literally ‘the panic of a gate closing’. This refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities which increases as one ages.
6. Saudade (Portuguese). Refers to the intense longing for a person or place you loved, which which or whom is now lost forever.
7. Hiraeth (Welsh). Similar to ‘saudade’, this word refers to homesickness tinged with grief for a place you can never return to.
8. Komoreb (Japanese). A word used to refer to the sunlight which filters through the leaves of trees.
9. Retrouvailles (French). The happiness of being reunited with a loved one whom you haven’t seen for a long time.
10. Pena Ajena (Spanish). That cringeworthy shame you experience on somebody else’s behalf when they are behaving in an embarrassing way.
11. Schadenfreude (German). This one is a familiar word as it has been adopted into the English vernacular. It refers, of course, to the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.
12. L’appel du vide (French). Literally, ‘the call of the void’. This refers to that impulse some of us get to jump when we are standing on a high ledge.
13. Pochemuchka (Russian). A wonderful word which refers to a person who asks far too many questions.
14. Backpfeifengesicht (German). An equally wonderful word which means, literally, a face badly in need of getting punched.
15. Beżżul (Maltese). Somebody who is cursed with unrelentless bad luck. This is similar to the Yiddish words ‘Schlimazl’ and ‘Schlemiel’.
16. Ilunga (Tshiluba – spoken in Southwest Congo). This marvellously specific word refers to the stature of a person “who is ready to forgive any first abuse tolerate it a second time, but absolutely never forgive or tolerate any third offence”.
17. Flâner (French). This is the art of leisurely and aimlessly strolling around the streets [of Paris] without any particular destination in mind, and done simply to bask in the beauty of the city.
18. Ayurnamat (Inuit). The philosophy that there is no need or reason to worry about that which you cannot change. Basically, Hakuna Matata.
19. Desvelado (Spanish). The tiredness that comes specifically from having been kept awake all night – by inconsiderate neighbours, for example.
20. Donaldkacsázás (Hungarian). Quite literally, ‘Donald Ducking’ – i.e. Wearing a shirt but no trousers or underpants inside your house.
21. Atolondrar (Spanish). To be so overwhelmed by something that it causes you to become scatter-brained and careless. For example, if you were multi-tasking so heavily at work that you forgot to send an important e-mail.
22. Żanżan (Maltese). To wear or use something new for the first time. Similar to the Spanish ‘Estrenar’.
23. Fingerspitzengefühl (German). Literally, ‘fingertips feeling'; used to refer to situational awareness, and the ability to react appropriately to a given situation.
24. Tan-te (Mandarin). A sense of uneasiness and worry – as if you were hyper-aware of your own heart beating.
25. Tocayo (Spanish). Somebody who shares your first name is your ‘tocayo’.
26. Gigil (Tagalog). That near-aggressive feeling you get when faced with something excruciatingly cute. Like you want to squeeze it until it pops. Basically, “It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die.”
27. Duende (Spanish). Literally translates as ‘goblin’, but actually refers to the heightened stage of emotion and passion connected with performance, most commonly with Flamenco, but applicable to other art forms.
28. Gezellig (Dutch). This word encompasses a number of meanings which refer to something the Dutch hold close to their heart. It is used to mean a sense of cosiness, friendliness, and comfort. Like sitting in your living room with good friends, sipping tasty wine and having fun together – that’s ‘gezellig’.
29. Forelsket (Norwegian). The euphoria that accompanies the early stages of falling in love.
30. Iktsuarpok (Inuit). The feeling of anxious anticipation that leads you to keep looking outside to see if anyone has arrived.
31. Sobremesa (Spanish). That period of time after you’ve finished lunch or dinner, where you just sit and talk with the people you’ve just shared your meal with.
32. Dépaysement (French). The feeling of displacement that comes with not being in one’s home country.
33. Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese). The act of running ones fingers tenderly though somebody’s hair.
34. Kummerspeck (German). Literally, ‘sorrow/grief bacon’, it refers to the weight you might gain from comfort-eating when you are feeling sad.
35. La douleur exquise (French). Literally ‘the exquisite agony’, this is used to refer to the pain of unrequited love.
36. Empalagarse (Spanish). Being overcome by sweetness to the point of nausea – so much that you find yourself needing to drink water or eat something salty to take away the sweetness.
37. Oodal (Tamil). That exaggerated, melodramatic anger that follows lovers’ spats; sulking and throwing a strop in an attempt to get them to apologise.
38. Jayus (Indonesian). A joke so badly told and so unfunny, that you can’t help but laugh at it.
39. Naz (Urdu). The pride or confidence derived from knowing that somebody holds you as the object of their affection and desire.
40. Prozvonit (Czech). The act of calling a mobile phone and only letting it ring once so the other person will call you back, thus saving you money.