Monday, 5 April 2021

Little Keir and The Mean Fayries

It was the Friday before Easter - Good Friday - when everybody is sad but is looking forward to eating lots of chocolate in a couple of days. As he waited for the Easter Bunny to bring him his well-deserved chocolate eggs, little Keir decided to go to church. Because that is what nice people do on that day. No one is sure why he decided to go to that particular church, because it is quite well known that this is not a very nice church; one that didn't like fayries. Perhaps it was because all his posh friends - Theresa, Boris, Charles and Camilla - had visited that church before him and he wanted to be more like his posh friends. 

So little Keir decided to go to that church, even though some of his best friends were fayries. And to make sure that everyone knew what a good boy he was, he decided to make a video for his social media. In the video, he explained how he liked what the church people did, and what a wonderful example the church was. You could even see him praying with the pastor of the church in the video. 

After his visit, he went home and he posted the video, feeling very satisfied with himself, and wondering how many new friends he would make after people saw what a good boy he was thanks to this video. But unfortunately for little Keir, some of the fayries saw his video too and because they knew like everybody else that the church isn't a very nice one - one that didn't like fayries - they started to mean things about little Keir for visiting it, asking why he had decided to go that particular church and not to another one. A nice one. One that did like fayries. 

Little Keir was confused at first. After all he had recently told his fayries friends how much he liked them and how he was going to help them when he grew up. So he went to see some of his fayrie friends and he told them that the visit to the church meant nothing at all, but that he was totally sorry he had done it. He didn't delete the video though, because some of his other best friends might like it. And he made sure he didn't talk about any of this to anyone else. He was hoping that the fayries were satisfied with what he had told them and that they would start watching another rerun of Drag Race and forget all about it. 

But, unfortunately for little Keir, the fairies had already watched all the reruns of Drag Race already and were still not happy, and they carried on saying mean things about him. So much so that four days later, he had to ask his friend Rachel to tell the whole story of his Good Friday visit in a different way for him. A different way that he knew the fairies wouldn't get angry about. 

And so Rachel put on a straight face and reassured everybody that little Keir really did like his fayrie friends and that they should trust him. She also said that the mean fairies criticising little Keir didn't understand anything to anything. Rachel said that they were mistaken and that little Keir had in fact been visiting a vaccination centre, and not a church at all. His video had been quoted out of context, that was it! 

Some of the people listening to Rachel understood that this was right, and that little Keir had apologised to make his fayrie friends happy, which was very nice of him, really. They understood that there was in fact nothing wrong with his video. They agreed with little Keir that he had been right all along and those mean fairies criticising him really didn't understand anything to anything. 

Unfortunately, the mean fairies didn't like the story Rachel told on behalf of little Keir and they were even more angry now. It was such a great story! Rachel couldn't understand it. Little Keir couldn't understand it. In fact, Little Keir was very sad now, because many of his friends had decided not to talk to him any more, and he was not even sure he had managed to make the new friends he was hoping to make after he showed everyone what a good boy he was who goes to... vaccination centres on Good Friday. 

Eventually, little Keir saw that he didn't have a choice and he decided to apologise to the fayries. He said that the church he had visited and praised was in fact not a nice church at all, although he didn't know at the time. Everybody knew that but no one had told him, which wasn't nice either. And even though he really didn't want to, he had to delete his lovely video too. 

Rachel seemed a little sore, for some reason, but most of the fayries were happy with his apology. It looks like they could be his best friends again, even if some of them unhelpfully pointed out that it took little Keir longer to do the right thing than it took Jesus to come back from the dead. Little Keir thought to himself that Jesus didn't have to always try to make lots of new friends and that the ones he had let him get on with his business without meddling. 

As he finished off the last of his Easter eggs, little Keir considered how his friend Boris was always able to do and say whatever he wanted without any problem. And here he was, always having to be mindful of people's feelings. Life really wasn't fair!

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Plenty of Time - A shortened story

I could carry on tinkering with it until Christmas and beyond, I'm sure, but I think the time as come to stop and let my short story go and live its stunted life in the big out there. 

For James, this grey morning of July 2005 is like any other, as he wakes up, gets ready and walks to the tube station to catch his train to work. Until he makes a mistake. 

It is 3,400 words long and should take about 30min to read. 

To mark the occasion I've created a webpage that includes my previous effort (and hopefully, soon, future ones). All in one place, now!

This also has a feedback form, which I invite you to use should you kindly grant me time to read my work. The feedback can be given anonymously, so no excuse! 


Health warning: The language I use in this story (quite different from that of the other one) is not going to be to most people's taste. Readers of English tend to prefer simple language. This isn't simple. It's full of adjective and adverbs. That's my Frenchness showing (off) there (sorry, your Eminence).

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Emily in Paris - A review from a French viewer

Last night I ended up binge watching the whole series of Emily in Paris on Netflix, after spotting on twitter someone live-tweeting their viewing of the first episode, which is, admittedly, pretty bad. 

The series, which comes from the creators of Sex and the City, is the story of Emily, a girl from Chicago who ends up being given a job as her PR company's envoy to its newly acquired French subsidiary. Her role is to tell that bunch of feckless frogs how to do their job. Something they prove surprisingly not very keen on... 

Because this is all about luxury, glamour and attracting the yoofs, she is a Gen Z marketeer specialising in social media, even though she only has 48 followers on IG when the show starts(!). 

She also doesn't speak French, which should probably disqualify her but that is not the case, because Emily, played by Lily Collins, daughter of Phil, is a pretty girl reaping the benefits of her white privilege, in her inordinately spacious, company-paid(?) "chambre de bonne" (that isn't actually a chambre de bonne). 

A big bonus for me, in addition of how good everyone (making generous use of the tired stereotypes of the Femme Française and the French Lover), and everything (In case we forget, Emily takes good care to remind us at least once per episode how beautiful and romantic and exciting Paris really is. It's just a shame it is populated with French people, being the unspoken sequitur) looks in the series, is that it appears to have actually been filmed in France, with actual French actors, which has historically rarely been the case for this sort of vehicle. 

The series is however also a rich collection of clichés and idiotic moments. 

Emily is possibly not as bright as we are supposed to think. It takes her no less than three times knocking on the door of her hunky downstairs neighbour *clumsy plot device alert* to figure out and/or remember that the "floor numbering here makes absolutely no sense", even though she has plenty of time to think about it, since her building is archaic enough not to have a lift. 

Something else she has problem seeing, through the rose-tinted glasses of her self-centredness, is that French people don't owe her anything and are therefore perfectly entitled to carry on doing things the French way, even at the unfathomably disrespectful risk of inconveniencing our heroine. 

A tiny part of the "fun" when watching this, at least in the early episodes, is in the spotting of the familiar tropes of the "American fish in the French pond" narrative. 

A lot of them are there, and a few of them are thankfully missing. 

Missing is the accordion as background music so people are really sure we are in France. Missing also are Citroen DSs (which have virtually disappeared from French roads for some time now). Missing are characters called Jean or Madeleine (1940's names, although the obligatory reference to D-Day isn't missing). They even managed to hold off till the 3rd episode for bidet "jokes"... such restraint! 

Since this is Netflix, there is at least one tiny nod to diversity, in this case in the person of one  (1) black man (in the whole series). A certain campness and sartorial flamboyance indicate that this male collaborator of Emily's could possibly be gay, but this paper-thin character is only there for "comedy" and to sometime move the plot forward, so he doesn't get even a whiff of a storyline to himself. It's not even clear what his role in the company is. 

All that said, whether it ends up actually getting better as the episodes roll on, or I got a merciful attack of Stockholm syndrome, I ended up enjoying the series and I'm quite ready for season 2. If that doesn't prove the power of American cultural imperialism, I don't know what will... 

The Independent gives a good overview of the situation: Emily in Paris: Critics hate it, French people are mocking it – but fans are obsessed 

Friday, 11 September 2020

Les Mignonnes/Cuties - a review

The original poster and Netflix's version

There's a storm currently well past brewing in a corner of Twitter about a French film called "Les Mignonnes" ("Cuties" in English), directed by French-Senegalese Maïmouna Doucouré. 

The shitstorm started when Netflix announced last month that it was going to show the film and accompanied that announcement with its own poster, showing the young girls at the centre of the film in tight-fitting, revealing outfits and suggestive poses. 

Without having even seen the film, and solely going by that image, people started to denounce cultural condescension, exploitation and gratuitous sexualisation. The film is a paedophile's wet dream, capable of perverting the young (though the film has certificate 15), we are told. 

Almost 400,000 people have signed a petition demanding Netlflix remove the film from its listings, and that the whole website be "cancelled". The story has crossed over to the press. People are cancelling their memberships and Netflix has removed its poster and amended the description of the film on its site. 

However, having now watched the film, I can't see how any of the criticisms levelled at it can stand. 

The plot, based on testimonies of such girls gathered by the director, focuses on a group of 11 year old girls of mixed ethnicities who dream to take part in a local dance competition. 

The main protagonist, Amy, is of Senegalese origin and finds herself torn between two cultures. One familiar and imbued with traditions and religion, that she feels alienated from, another saturated with the discourse and images of sexuality, that she doesn't understand despite being attracted by it. 

She is new to the area, facing puberty and pretty much left to her own devises by her mother, who finds herself having to deal with the unwanted but inescapable fact that her husband (still in Senegal) is finally on his way to her to celebrate his marriage to a second wife. 

There are indeed some skimpy clothes and some highly sexualise dance moves in the films, particularly in the climactic scene of the dance competition, that Netflix took its poster from. But the film does not in any way glamourise such things and is clearly a social commentary on what society is doing to those girls. In fact that scene in the poster is purposefully, deeply cringe-worthy, and under the booing of the audience, a catalyst for Amy's epiphany. 

Left to themselves, they are trying to make sense of the world they live in, while finding a sense of belonging. Bombarded by sexualised images in video clips, with no viable alternative (the culture at home is too oppressive to be it), they have to choice but to conform to and ape what they see as the norm and its language (visual or aural). 

In the end this fails because they don't really understand what that language really means and because they are simply too young. The core message of the film is that they are made to grow too fast by an adult world that has no real place for them. 

The film does attack cultural islam but it's not like it is showing Western culture as being better in anyway. In fact Doucouré is equally critical of both cultures finding a common ground in their objectification and commodification of women, even if it is in different ways. The traditional culture is not capable, is not ready, to provide answers to Amy, but neither is our western culture. Both are letting her down. 

"Les Mignonnes" is a good piece of cinematography that gives a voice to a minority within the minority. The girls in it are just that: girls. Often they are ugly little brats too, but they are in a quest for meaning and Amy, at least, eventually finds some. 

The film has won a number of prizes and if people had not jumped to conclusions following Netflix's frankly ham-fisted marketing, it would be easy for them to see why.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Bank holiday arty-farterie

This was intended as a short Facebook status update...

It's been a busy time at the cultural mill this bank-holiday weekend. Eddie dragged me to no less than 6 exhibitions (and there was ancillary cake, of course). 

First it was was Tate Modern for the Pierre Bonnard exhibition on Saturday. 
I knew OF Bonnard, of course, but very little about him and his work, which doesn't attract me visually, if I'm honest. I can't say I have become a convert after seeing the show but I found his use of framing (for his paintings and the use of frames within the frame) as well as what felt like an attempt to create abstractions from everyday situations interesting (and resonant). 
In the Bathroom (1940)
I had bumped into a matinal friend when arriving at the gallery and he had recommended having a look at the Dorothea Tanning exhibition, so we popped in. While I recognise the quality of the draftsmanship generally shown by surrealists, I can't say that their stuff is my bag. The exhibition was interesting in that it covered all of Tanning's carreer and therefore the evolution of her style. I realised that I knew one of her paintings but nothing else. I enjoyed most her later work. Because they are so referrential (of classical painting and Bacon, particularly), lots of the piece felt already familiar somehow. For an artist interested in dreams that's a satisfactory effect to achieve in her audience. 
Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik
We then whizzed across London to John Keats' house in Hampstead where for the weekend only the manuscript of his Ode to a Nightingale was on display (on loan from the Fitzwilliam). There were three actors there who performed a few rather clumsily expositional scenes, imagined from the life of Keats in the house. 
The first page of the manuscript
Then I discovered chocolate babka cake at a local bakery... 
Chocolate babka (or yeats) cake
... and my life was never the same again!

On Sunday, we went to Tate Britain. Eddie wanted to see the Van Gogh in Britain exhibition and I wanted to see the Don McCullin one, which was closing this weekend. 

There were fewer works by Van Gogh than one might expect to find in a show titled "Van Gogh in Britain". In fact it turns out that Van Gogh only really started painting after he'd left Britain. The exhibition therefore focusses, sometimes rather unconvincingly, on the influence those years spent in the UK had on Van Gogh's work, and then on the influence Van Gogh's work had on British artists. I enjoyed the opportunity to see early works that are not normally shown (most probably because they are not in his later, well-known style). 
Van Gogh was "inspired" by his print collection. Here one of Gustave Doré's views of London.
The Don McCullin exhibition was one of the three big photography exhibition on London right now (the others being Diane Arbus at the Hayward and Martin Parr at the NPG, of which more later). It's difficult not to draw comparisons. Like Arbus's work, the McCullin images on show were all black and white, but here the similarities end. Where Arbus seems to clumsily point a camera she doesn't quite know how to use a rather random things, McCullin knows what he is doing, both technically and compositionally. The results (even when he is not shooting war zones) are incredibly powerful and strong. 

One of the room showed some of the newspaper and magazine spreads which are McCullin's images' natural habitat. One of those spreads matched earlier work with his last visit to conflict area. One set of images in high-contrast black and white and the more recent set in colour. Although the images were deliberately quite similar, I was struck by how much more impactful the B&W images seemed to be. 

A section of the show was dedicated to McCullin's work in 1970's UK: homeless men in derilict Aldgate, and poverty-striken squalor in Bradford and Liverpool. Somewhat puzzlingly, McCullin took up the subject as a way to take his mind off the horror he saw as a war reporter, but he also felt an affinity with the poverty he encountered, having experienced it himself as a child. In any case I could help thinking that those Brexiteers who claim that the UK was doing just fine before it joined the EU should be showed those images for a much-needed reality check. It's not far-fetched to compare those images with those of a war-zone (and the comparison was very easy indeed, a few steps to the next room being all it took).

Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
Sheep Going to the Slaughter House
On Monday, we paid a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, the name "Martin Parr" has been rising up more and more into my awareness but I have to admit that I was a little dismissive of his work, all those colouful seaside images felt superficial and pointless.

So encountering the full breadth of his work in one big exhibition was a useful way to properly assess him. The sense of fluffy froth remains but I understand much better now what he is trying to do: explore Britishness in all its quirkiness. There is sharp observation and often humour in Parr's work.

Because of his subject of choice, Brexit is something that was bound to crop up in the show. There is in fact a whole section supposedly dedicated to the subject. But it seems Brexit is mostly elusive and not camera-friendly. The selection of images feels arbitrary. In fact, apart for a couple of exceptions, Brexit can't really be applied to those photos that do not differ from the main body of Parr's work in any way. You could argue that, because Brexit is ultimately about British (or rather English) identity, the whole of Parr's work is about Brexit.

More interestingly for me, however I discovered that Parr has an open project on people dancing. This leads him to attend all sorts of occasions where people are dancing, which, of course, includes clubs. Something I know well from my own work. It was interesting to compare what was presented of his output on the subject with mine. And I honestly think I can stand my ground there. 

The Perry Family 
Manchester Pride, Manchester
Something I felt was missing from both photographic exhibition (though there were a few nods in that direction in the Parr show), was a description and discussion of the artists' MO. Do they use digital and why not if they don't, how do they approach people, do they shoot first, ask permission after, do they chat or move on straight away, how does Parr choose this hairdressing salon rather than that one, etc...

Most people visiting the show would probably not be interested but I'm sure a fair amount of photographers would also attend and would be interested in that sort of thing. 

Monday, 24 December 2018

Truce - a short story

I spent Christmas Day 2017 at a friend's place. After indulging in all sorts of delicious foods he had prepared, we lay in a mild torpor on his sofa, half watching television. One of the programmes unfolding before our bleary eyes happened to be the festive Dr Who episode, which included a scene in the trenches of the First World War during that infamous football match in 1914. This was, of course, in reference to the celebrations of the centenary of the war.

In any case, this somehow imprinted itself into my subconscious and within the next few days, a story presented itself to my mind. Over the following months, I endeavoured to commit it to electronic paper.

This is my first completed attempt at writing fiction. I am grateful to my first readers, Eddie, Sue, Richard, Russell and Andrew, who were kind enough to say positive things about the story, and also provided input and feedback.

It is, I think, now time to release it unto the unsuspecting world, 104 years to the day after the event that gives it its background. I hope you enjoy it, if you take the time to read it.

Feedback and comments are welcome.

Read the short story (Google Doc)
(It's just under 5000 words, so takes about one hour to read)

Monday, 12 February 2018

LGBT History Month - Standing on the shoulders of giants

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.", wrote Isaac Newton in 1675. It wasn’t an original thought even at the time but as we reach the middle of this year’s LGBT History Month, and as some wonder what the need is for such an event, this quote seems particularly apt. 

Although, as in so many cases, evidence is scant, Newton seems likely to have been at least romantically attracted to men. A possible proclivity, which, like that of so many other prominent figures, is either not discussed or actively maintained in the recesses of the darkest closet by an interested or downright hostile society. 

Further than this, however, the quote epitomises the situation of any LGBT person living in the UK in 2018. It is a cliché but we do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants; people who have had the courage to speak out and push for laws and mentalities to change; for us to be in a position to live our lives more or less as we please (although, as research on bullying, homelessness and hate crimes show, too many of us are still not even able to do that). 

Forgetting this is a betrayal of those courageous forebears (the Karl Heinrich Ulrichs or Marsha P. Johnsons of this world) and puts us on the road to forgetting that rights can be taken away much more easily than they are won. We only need to look at Bermuda, which just repealed its equal marriage legislation after only a year, and the pathetic lack of effective response from the Home Office, to know how true this is. 

However much we may protest otherwise from our privileged positions, vigilance is still key, and taking even a fleeting interest in our past can help us keep it alive. 

To many, history appears boring and irrelevant, but LGBT history is more than a list of meaningless dates. It is about the blood, sweat and tears of people like us. It tells us who we are, how we got there, and why we are we are. It certainly doesn’t have to be a miserable yawnfest in black and white, although there are sadly plenty of gloomy episodes in our collective, and often very recent, past. 

Look at the 18th century London Mollies, with their gender-bending, their mock marriages and birthings, or the thriving gay scene of the Weimar Republic, with its bars, social groups and magazines. Perhaps you’d prefer a look at the 70’s communes in Brixton with their radical theatre troupes? Our past shimmers with all the glittering colours of the rainbow, if you just care to look. 

Far from preventing any member of the community from being themselves, it is a way for us to learn about those role models we are never told about by the straight mainstream. 

Our straight brothers and sisters, by virtues of being members of the mainstream, are steeped in their own history. It is all around them and this allows them to build their sense of self as valued members of a group pretty much by osmosis. 

By our very nature, this is a luxury that we are not granted. Knowing our history provides the grounding to “see further” and be your best self, to be more creative and more at home within your own skin without having to achieve that result on your own. 

In the end, there is space for both learning about our past and enjoying a party. In fact, if we know about the challenges, the joys, the hardships and the achievements, aren’t we likely to want to enjoy ourselves with more defiant gusto and to appreciate the freedom to do so with added vigour? 

To paraphrase LGBT History Month's tag line: Celebrate your present, by all means, but do not forget to claim your past. It will help you create your future.