Monthly Archives: April 2017

Letters from Baghdad


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Whenever I read a book or watch a film, my ideal reaction is to be left speechless but also so full of profound afterthoughts that I struggle to then coherently explain myself. It doesn’t happen often, but I absolutely adore it when it does. There are many reasons why I want to recommend this documentary, not least because I got the rare joy of reacting to the film in this way, but for the sake of being concise I stick to just three.

‘Letters from Baghdad’ is a documentary by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl about the true story of Gertrude Bell. The film is made up visually of about 75% contemporary and previously unseen archive footage depicting mostly the Middle East where Gertrude Bell worked and lived in the early 20th Century. It is shown alongside stills of her own photographs from the archive at Newcastle University. The rest of the footage was created for the film, and mostly consists of interviews representing her friends, family and colleagues. The audio overlaying this stunning visual encapsulation of history is Tilda Swinton reading the letters written by Gertrude Bell to her friends and family in England.

The documentary is utterly stunning to watch and listen to, and my congratulations to both Oelbaum and Krayenbühl for their masterful creation. The first reason I have to recommend this film to people is because it has been so carefully researched and skilfully created. I had the good fortune of being able to be part of the question and answer session with the filmmakers, held after a viewing at the Tyneside Cinema here in Newcastle. The passion, hard work and dedication that these two filmmakers and their team put into the making of this film is to be commended. This is not just because of how wonderful the film about Gertrude Bell turned out, but also because her story is incredibly important to tell.

Being from the North East where Gertrude Bell came from, and a former history student at Newcastle University where the archive of her photographs and letters is held, I’ve been fortunate enough to gain awareness of her via public lectures and exhibitions. While I have never studied her in depth because I ended up specialising in earlier historical periods, it has never been lost on me that Gertrude Bell should be a great deal better known. She has seemingly been forgotten by history in the West, though as the filmmakers did point out, she very fondly remembered in places such as Iraq, where she is known as ‘Miss Bell’.

The documentary charts her life, highlighting at first her travels in the Middle East, in what was then the Ottoman Empire, before moving on to her being recruited by the British Government as a consultant in the establishment of the modern State of Iraq in the aftermath of the First World War. For a woman who achieved so much, at a time when it wasn’t something a lady would do, for her to have been seemingly forgotten by history is something I still struggle to understand.

I’m not an expert either historically or politically in commenting on her legacy or on the events that have happened in the Middle East since she carried out her work. However, her relevancy given the turmoil in current times is something that needs to be highlighted, and is the second reason I recommend this film. The events that she witnessed have remarkable parallels to the modern day, especially the importance placed by Western Governments of establishing ‘their’ control over oil over keeping their promises to help build administrations for the peoples of the Middle East to govern themselves. If anyone wants to understand better the historical reasons behind why this region is so troubled now, this documentary about a time when these troubles mirror the present day is very good place to start.

However, this film is not just a starting point for anyone wanting to understand the history of the region better. As wonderful as the archive footage used throughout the documentary is, this is a film about a remarkably complex woman. That is something that cannot be buried under other reasons to see the film. For me the most important reason why anyone should see this film is because of Gertrude Bell herself.

Women do tend to be forgotten by history, and this documentary is a vital demonstration that women of the past can be just as interesting, talented, important and as complex as their male counterparts. It was even suggested in the question and answer session that it is because she is a woman that this story of her life is all the more remarkable because of what she managed to achieve in a male dominated world. The interpretation of her life that I found most intriguing about this film was the idea of what defined her as a person.

She came across as a very intelligent and adventurous woman, who found travelling and exploring the world one of the only ways in which she felt like a ‘person’, by which I took that to mean, she felt valued in the same way a man would be simply by fact of his gender rather than through his accomplishments. Hearing her words and her viewpoint of the events of the world, via Tilda Swinton’s masterful readings of her letters, not only proves her historical importance as a first-hand witness to events, but is also a remarkable testimony to how complex a person is capable of being.

From the interviews scattered throughout the documentary, which were based on accounts from her contemporaries, her complexity becomes apparent. She was viewed as an arrogant woman, who was disinterested in the ‘normal’ activities of women, but nevertheless was also seen as incredibly capable, even if at times her place was questioned simply because of her sex. Even within her own correspondence, she had become to believe herself to be a sexless entity, and in that way had become acceptable. However, later in her life she acknowledged, with a heavy heart I felt, that the matter of her gender became unacceptable when the likes of Sir Percy Cox who valued her work, were replaced by men that did not view her as important.

The greatest insight into the woman that I got from the documentary was a remark she made about why she worked as hard as she did. Naturally of course her romantic relationships were discussed, and from her correspondence I was very much left with the impression that while all of her inner feelings weren’t necessarily seen by her contemporaries, based on what she wrote I would suspect that she felt very deeply indeed.

She was a romantic, struck by tragedy. Her work was to her a narcotic, because she wanted a distraction from other thoughts that she did not wish to dwell on. Because of those words alone I struggle to see the arrogant woman her colleagues saw. I don’t doubt she probably was arrogant, but she was also deeply fraught; a woman conflicted by the events she saw around her and by the events of her own life. This is why for me, Gertrude Bell is the most important reason to see this documentary, because she is portrayed as complex.

In a world where women are still fighting to be fully represented by the media, whether in fact or fiction, this documentary demonstrates that it is possible show to show the depth and complications of a woman’s life. More than that it can be done using our own words, our accomplishments and with an intricacy that cannot simply be summarised by whether we are wholly good or bad; feminine or not; or seen as successful or arrogant in our pursuits. We can be all of these, all at once, just like Gertrude Bell.

Also if we don’t fight for women like her was to be remembered, who’s to say that in a hundred years’ time, the women of our time will be remembered for their achievements?

Book Review – First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson


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As a teenager I had a problem with emetophobia (fear of vomiting), which did lead to some complicated relationships with food following any period of illness. Because of this I’ve always been fairly cautious of what I eat. Thankfully, being rather fond of vegetables I don’t think I was of much concern to my parents, even though I will admit I was a bit picky (yes Mum I do realise I was embarrassing in public when I wanted a dry, bread bun rather than a tasty sandwich – sorry!).

In addition as an adult, especially because I suffer from depression at times, I do eat emotionally and I can go through some pretty rough patches whenever I try to lose weight. One of the ways I have been trying in the last year or so is giving up sugar, unsuccessfully I might add, though I have managed to cut back. I was drawn to reading this book after having come across a few articles online by the author Bee Wilson regarding ‘clean eating’ and similar movements that have been fashionable of late.

In summary, Bee Wilson focused on the idea that while the food being promoted by ‘clean eating’ is indeed good for you, an unhealthy mental attitude towards food generally can develop. I’d already come to this conclusion on my own, but I wanted to know more about how she’d come to that conclusion, which is when I found out about this book. I wanted to read it as part of understanding better why I have those rough patches and why I have found giving up sugar much tougher mentally than physically. I have certainly found myself a great deal better informed because of this book.

‘First Bite’ is a well researched and fascinating account of how people learn how to eat. It is mostly focused on children, and I highly recommend it to any parent trying to understand why their child is a picky eater. I also recommend it generally for anyone interested in eating habits and the possibility of changing them as adults. Of everything I learnt from the book about how we learn to eat, the most important conclusion is that we can re-learn how to eat as well.

There is a lot of scientific research within the book, but don’t be put off by the thought it will be boring. This book is anything but boring: it is so engrossing and so interesting I found that I couldn’t put it down. It is an incredibly well written book. Non-Fiction can sometimes be different to penetrate but this is not the case here. Everything is very well explained and easy to understand.

I will add Bee Wilson’s disclaimer to this review: ‘First Bite’ book is not a diet book. Nor is her latest book ‘This is a Not a Diet Book: A User’s Guide to Eating Well’ – her work is very much a focus on the scientific research and theory. Neither book is a regimented diet designed to help you shift the pounds, they are books there to explain why we eat the way we do and how we can go about changing our mental approach to our diet. I have ‘This is Not a Diet Book’ too, and I recommend that as well, because it is a lovely little book of advice, and support, and understanding from someone who as an adult has changed their eating habits.

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Book Review: Poems That Make Grown Women Cry


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It has been two years since I first picked up the companion collection ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry‘. I was excited a year ago to finally get a copy of ‘Poems That Make Grown Women Cry’ also edited by Anthony and Ben Holden. So re-reading what I wrote then about the first book, I am rather surprised at myself that it has taken me as long as it has to finally finish reading this collection.

I didn’t pick it up because I was researching a character like I had before. I very much picked it up because of the lovely journey the previous volume had taken me on and the emotional stories behind why they been picked. That was the reason I got myself a copy of the companion collection selected by women as soon as I realised it had been published. I then surprised myself entirely by the fact I have had a completely different response to this book.

In truth it is just as brilliant, but as it turns out I have a rather complex relationship with poetry. I just haven’t connected as deeply with this collection. And that is certainly not a reflection on the stories nor the poems that have been chosen. There are certainly a few among the pages that resonate with my heart.

Rosie Boycott’s selection of ‘Funeral Blues’ by W.H. Auden in particular is a poem I cherish and one of the few I have ever tried to commit to memory. It is the same with Judi Dench and Emily Mortimer’s choice of ‘So, we’ll go no more a roving’ by Lord Byron. I have even had the joy of rediscovering one of the few pieces by Lewis Carroll that I actually enjoy, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, which Bella Freud put forward for the collection.

A few pieces I hadn’t know before have come to my attention, including Thokozile Masipa’s choice of ‘Walls’ by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali; Catherine Mayer coupled selection of ‘Listen’ by Else Lasker-Schuler and ‘No Solace Here’ by Gottfried Benn; Claire Tomalin’s choice of her daughter Susanna’s piece ‘Verses from my Room’ will likely haunt my thoughts a while, echoing alongside Annie Lennox’s choice of ‘Suicide from the Trenches’ by Siegfried Sassoon. And in moments when I need to boost my self-esteem Warsan Shire’s ‘for women who are difficult to love’ selected by Taiye Selasi, will never be too far away.

You see there is plenty to enjoy, however going back to my complex relationship with poetry, the words that resonated with me the most in the book (at least at the time I read them, with poetry that changes with my mood) were Sebastian Faulk’s remarks about a friend of his that simply does not connect to poetry in the same way he does. I deeply, deeply relate to his friend the vast majority of the time. I appreciate poetry, and I deeply appreciate that my education, which included dissecting poetry to death, didn’t turn me away from it entirely. But I don’t feel the connection described by so many.

Poetry, like love in ‘Walls’ needs to traverse rather a tough barrier to get into my heart. It is a wondrous form, and I relish the moments when my heart yearns for a bit of poetry to ease whatever rumblings of feelings that need to be quietened a bit. I regularly go to several of the poems in ‘Poems that Make Grown Men Cry’, or ‘Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep’, by Mary Frye. In lighter moods ‘Love’s Philosophy’ by Shelley will soften me around the edges. When I seek amusement I turn to my favourites in ‘The World’s Wife‘ by Carol Ann Duffy.

Poetry is not a constant need though, and I suspect you may be wondering what may have finally prompted me to finish this book and write a review.

Because I have finally found a poem that makes me cry.

Finally understanding that feeling, I felt I could at last I could come back to this collection and write about it with the justice it fully deserves. I had the character I was researching stuck in my head when I discovered the wonders of the companion collection; I am very glad that this time I was able to discover poems in this collection with just my own heart.



TV Review – The League of Gentlemen


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I know ‘The League of Gentlemen’ is hardly a recent television show to review, but for me is it a rather recent discovery. I was too young to watch it when it was first broadcast; I wasn’t a babe in arms but I wasn’t quite a teenager either, even though I was probably more mature then than I am now. Over the years though, I’ve been appreciating the various works of the writers since, and decided that watching the show was something that finally needed to be done.

But this is not just me filling in a day on my blog, by going other a TV show that has been available for years to view. The main reason I can’t help but review the show is because it is one of the few things I’ve found that will make me laugh. This is great praise for a comedy I know and I will accept comments from people who are now wondering whether I’ve gone a bit daft. ‘Of course comedy is going to make you laugh’, and cue eye-rolling from my readers.

Let me explain; I find laughing out loud to be something I mainly do as part of a group activity. Deep belly laughing and setting off my asthma is something I only do with other people (and not just for the obvious safety reasons in that admission). When I’m on my own though and watching comedy I don’t laugh. I appreciate what I’m watching, but few things make me chuckle while I’m on my own.

I’m weird what can I say.

When I watch ‘The League of Gentlemen’ alone though I do laugh, perhaps not quite as loudly as when I watch it with others but there is an actual external acknowledgement that my sense of humour has been tickled. It’s gets under my skin.  I will never hear the word ‘Local’ in the same way again, and from now on I will always have a silent chuckle with myself when they turn the lights out on a cave tour. I’m quite serious in my praise for ‘The League of Gentlemen’ because it does have the rare effect of making me laugh with myself.

It is a brilliant British cult classic that gets at the very heart of the type of black comedy that I find very funny. The show twists quite normal situations to dark extremes, with a delightful mix of black humour and horror. It has well thought out characters and great writing (especially the plotting of series three). The slant of Northern English context is even relatable (as a proud Northerner myself), and sometimes painfully accurate.

It is also everything that I want from a comedy.

I want a situation to be subtly and satirically twisted; blatant stereotyping and a generic laugh track, common to many popular sitcoms, will just make me switch off. Yes, this show has a laugh track, but isn’t a cue for me to laugh because I’m supposed to find this highlighted moment funny; the laughing is there because it is actually funny.

If the comedy is physical then it needs to be simple or slightly farcical, like Peter Sellers peering around a corner and spilling milk. Unnecessary slapstick will just make me roll my eyes. While the more grotesque elements of the show have an element of slapstick, the sublime acting from Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, and in particular from Mark Gatiss, shows how using subtle body language to twist the already satirical dialogue, a larger than life characters can be created for comic effect without resorting to cheap tricks. Fine it isn’t verbose to the same extent as the likes of Sir Humphrey, but the writing is on point, which works marvellously with the talent of the cast.

It is just fantastic and I’m very glad to add it to the list of reasons why I admire the creators of the show.





Film and Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


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I never review both a film and book in the same post. Trust me though I never thought I would watch the film or read the book. When I’d heard about the book I was utterly horrified at the thought of what had been done. I let the movie roll pass me when it got released in the cinema.

Two reasons for this, the first being that I absolutely love ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen, and also the adaption by the BBC, which has nothing at all to do with Colin Firth diving into a lake, none whatsoever. Alright maybe a little, and the cute reference to it in the Zombie film delighted me. However, the thought that someone had tinkered with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was repulsive to me especially because of the second reason.

Generally I’m more receptive to horror than I give myself credit for, zombies however are an absolute no-no. I cannot stand them. The only zombie film I’ve ever been able to watch before is ‘Shaun of the Dead’, and that is because it has the delightful mix of being a comedy as well as a horror film. Plus you know Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and cornettos.

So much to my surprise, for some reason, the other week I found myself watching a film called ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’. I still don’t know why. Pass, but I made it to the end, and there were no nightmares, which is generally the case when I accidentally walk in on my husband watching ‘The Walking Dead’.

Even stranger was the fact that after I had seen the film, I immediately started reading the book, which we had a copy of because said husband had expressed interest in it so I’d picked it up for him.

I will hold my hands up and admit that the book by Seth Grahame-Smith isn’t actually a bad book. It’s categorized as a parody, but I read it more like a counterfactual history of the novel (yeah ‘Man in the High Castle’ is still swirling around my head given what I’ve just defined is what most normal people would just call a ‘parody’. Normal is not an adjective frequently used to describe me though). It is very respectful of the original story, but has a lovely comical, tongue in cheek addition to the story: zombies. I really enjoyed it a lot more than I thought.

The reason I wanted to read the book so soon after watching the film though, is because the film is so terrible, I honestly wanted to know whether the novel had ripped apart the original story or whether it had just been the film that had only done a vague adaptation of Austen’s original. 

The only saving grace in the film was Matt Smith as Mr Collins: given the likes of Charles Dance and Lena Headley are also in it and even they weren’t good, it pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

It is just awful. As I learned, the film of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ not only bears little resemblance to Austen’s story, it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the parody novel it was based on either.

The main reason I have written this review is simple – if you want to learn how not to adapt a book into a film, read the parody novel and then brace yourself for the film. And then you are ever a writer in the position to adapt a novel into a film, remember to at least refer to your source material beyond just the title and the characters.

Film Review – Doctor Strange



Anyone who has read my review of Civil War and also my post on Marvel Revisited will know that I’m no longer the biggest fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – I’ve always been pretty honest about my opinion on Tony Stark, but now I’m more than willing to just be opening critical and rather bored.

I properly slammed Marvel for being so blatant about the reveal of the infinity stone in this film on revisiting my thoughts on the MCU. Also given that this film and its protagonist is remarkably similar to Tony Stark, you might be rather surprised to learn that despite the fact I’ve been rather apathetic in getting around to blogging a review of this film, I do actually like it.

Doctor Strange has a few things going for it that made me want to see the film again recently when it got released on DVD. It is has magic, time travel and a great cast.

I’ll start on the most controversial of those:the cast. I’ll start by saying I don’t know the comics, nor was I expecting an Asian male actor to be cast as the Ancient One. I fully support the controversy surrounding the whitewashing that took place in ‘Ghost in the Shell’, a film I have no intention seeing for the very reason that there is literally no excuse for why an Asian actress couldn’t be cast. If the industry wants Scarlett Johansson in an action film, then three words: Black Widow film.

I will admit though I had no clue about the controversy about the casting of Tilda Swinton until after I’d already been to the cinema. I knew she had been cast and after falling in love with her as an actress in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive‘, I will hold my hands up and admit she was one of the reasons I went to see the film.

Whitewashing in Hollywood is definitely an issue that needs to be stopped: the only defense Doctor Strange has for having done it is because in the film they redefined the characters origins as Celtic, and they did have a strong female role, instead of just another male character, in industry equally as guilty of sexism. Not a great reason, but there are worse ones out there.

That aside, the rest of the cast was utterly brilliant, even if the Marvel formula doesn’t really stretch actors too much, I really loved the ensemble. I mean Benedict Cumberbatch had a bit of a dodgy accent, but it was consistently dodgy rather than a one that went all over the place.

The real reason though that I like the film is pretty simple – magic and time travel, specifically time loops. I am a fantasy geek, and I write about magic. I am also a science fiction nerd, and I’m particularly fond of time loops.

Honestly, this is a pretty basic reason to like a film, but I have found of late that if I think too much about Marvel films I end up being critical, perhaps overly so, as I tend to be like that when I get bored and there is no doubting that as a franchise overall, I’m bored.

However I love magic and time loops, and how they visualised that is pretty stunning in an slight rip off of Inception but trapped in a kaleidoscope sort of way, but I left the cinema buzzing and I would recommend the film as it is good fun.

Doctor Who Revisited



I will admit that last year when I wrote about Doctor Who on my blog, I do feel as if I was doing a box-ticking exercise; I did a blog post for each series and a post about why I’m a fan. I’m a massive fan and I felt as if it should be something I should have already written about, but looking back it was a love-less exercise, a distraction from my hectic life. There was some gushing, but very little passion.

However, with the new series of Doctor Who, due to start tonight (15th April 2017) for the first time in a long time I am genuinely very excited to start watching a new series. I’ve been trying to figure why I’m so excited about it when in truth I haven’t been this excited about Doctor Who since the 50th Anniversary special, which  is probably the last episode of the show that I genuinely loved.

It is possibly because of the new companion Bill played by Pearl Mackie, after years of not really being all bothered by Clara Oswald. It might be because this is Peter Calpaldi’s last stint as the Doctor and Steven Moffat’s last series as the Head Writer, so I’m expecting major fireworks. It might be because it isn’t competing with Game of Thrones for my attention. It might be because the last series was broadcast in autumn 2015 and I’ve been missing it more than I realised. Or it might simply be because I’m just in that sort of mood at the moment where the prospect of a new series of Doctor Who is appealing.

I suspect it might be a massive combination of it all, but equally I’ve been thinking a lot about why I haven’t been enjoying it as much. I know a lot of people are not fond of Steven Moffat as the Head Writer, and before anyone comments that this might be the reason, I will categorically state that this is not the reason. No-one using any argument will ever convince me that Steven Moffat as done a bad job as the Head Writer, even though it has been mostly his stint that I’ve been less than enthusiastic about.

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Looking through what I wrote about what been broadcast while Moffat has been in charge and having a quick flick through IMDB at the episode listings, there is nothing wrong with what has been written and produced. I enjoyed the episodes when I watched them, but I have been resisting watching them again, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a repeat of Doctor Who since the end of series five and that includes all of Russell T Davies stint as well. However, it is all brilliant television, and I especially loved the story line of Me in the last series. I just haven’t connected to the most recent few series in the way I used to do.

Last week I had an epiphany as to why, when I was watching ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ again, and then the special features afterwards. I’m a bit of a special features nut. While I predominantly identify as a writer, I am seriously geeky about learning about the production of television and film as well. I always have been, because that is how I interact as a fan with what has entertained me.

I struggled with the format of series 6 because they had a mid-season break, so I know that was definitely part of the problem I had back then but series 7, 8 and 9 was missing something a lot more vital: Doctor Who Confidential. 

I mentioned in my previous post summarising why I’m a fan of the show that I missed Doctor Who Confidential and Torchwood Declassified after they got cancelled, but I hadn’t come to the conclusion that this was the reason why I didn’t like Doctor Who as much anymore. Yes I know the BBC then backtracked a little, and there are featurettes on the website, but it is not the same.

I was watching the special features on ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ with Mark Gatiss literally gushing about how much he had loved being involved in the making of the film (and of course the film itself which is essentially just a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes at the inception of Doctor Who) when I remembered why Confidential was so important to me.

I would watch the episode, then Confidential and then re-watch the episode to see what had been discussed. It was the joy of seeing the episode in production and then re-watching the final product that made me excited about the show. I could re-watch the episode, and rather than focus on the plot and the story, I would be watching for the tiny detail mentioned by a member of the crew that was lovingly included to add depth to Doctor Who even if it wasn’t likely to be noticed.

It was the love and the passion of the people who make Doctor Who that makes me a fan of the show, not just the characters and the stories. The absence of that is what made my discussions of Doctor Who on my blog last year seem like little more than a box-ticking exercise, because I myself had lost my passion for the show.

Yes when I discussed series two I gushed about ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, but I’d forgotten that one of the most fascinating things I learnt as I was being introduced to the show was how the special effects in ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ was produced on the characters affected by The Wire. 

It seems simple now, but I was still developing my tastes in the horror genre at the time. It properly freaked me out, but seeing how it was done turned watching the episode into a thrill rather than something I’d have to re-watch from behind the sofa.

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It was as much ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ as it was ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ that made me fall in love with Doctor Who, and not just because they are both iconic episodes (at least in my mind), but because the passion of the people who created them drew me in and started what was once a massive obsession.

I’m hoping that the new series will prompt me to become obsessed all over again, and now I’ve been able to figure out the reasons why I struggled to connect, it might make it easier to go back and watch existing episodes again. I might now get to fall in love with Doctor Who even more. While at the time I thought I could, I now know that I will never be able to forgive the BBC for cancelling Doctor Who Confidential though. That will always sting.