Essay: My Many Selves as a Geeky Fan

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I’ve been thinking a great deal in recent months about what it means to be a fan; bear with me, I think a lot, I write it all down, and I’m not averse to an unhappy ending. This essay is the story of who I have been all my life; I am a geek. I’m not just a geek, but that aspect of who I am has evolved over the years and is a large part of my life.

For the first time ever though I’ve evolved because of other fans and I’ve been hurt by that change. For you to understand my heartbreak you need to know the context that came before.

The Early Years

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I can remember being an obsessive person from a very young age. As a geek, it started with the Ewok cartoons, before I even knew about the Star Wars films. I was also into ‘Back to the Future’, something I have since identified as being one of my first real obsessions a one, unlike the Ewok cartoons, I am still captivated by.

I’ve always been relatively secure in my interests; if I had periods of trying to conform to ‘normal’ because of peer pressure then they were short lived. I know they did happen, and generally speaking they stopped because I was bored.

I was the kid that got called a geek, a nerd and a swot. When I was younger that hurt. Then, when I was about twelve and I turned around to someone shouting it at me with a simple reply; ‘And?”. They were confused; ‘So what if I’m a swot?”. It didn’t stop them from shouting it at me for a while, until they realised it didn’t bother me. They started shouting other things instead, but that’s different. I was sure of myself and my interests, and it stopped hurting.

This was before the internet and social media were all the rage; I spent my teen years having hushed conversations with friends about whether Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager was the best Star Trek Series (for which the answer is Deep Space Nine), or whether the Klingons, The Dominion or the Borg were the best villains (despite previous answer, The Borg, hands down). That was about as much interaction as I had with other people about geeky things; I talked with like-minded folks, who also had things like ‘swot’ shouted at them down the corridors.

And I never considered myself lonely; I had friends for other reasons. Being a geeky fan was an entirely different part of my life. It had more to do with my parents than with my peers.

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The first time I saw the Star Wars films was when they re-released the films in the cinema in 1997, branded as the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy. Like the generation when Star Wars was first released, I got to see it for the very first time in the cinema.

My parents introduced me to Star Trek. I can even remember being excited about the last few series of Deep Space Nine and Voyager broadcasting for the first time. It’s the same with Stargate SG-1, which I think we watched because of me and my love for the fact they combined science fiction with Ancient Egyptian mythology.

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And then there is J.R.R. Tolkien. I was never taken with ‘The Hobbit’, which I read as a child, so Tolkien was a bit of a mystery to me overall. All I knew was that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was one of the few books my dad would read again and again. I can remember seeing the trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring, and being intrigued by the fact my dad was excited by it. And then I saw the film for the first time. Wham! In the space of 178 minutes, I became a fully-fledged fantasy fan as well as a sci-fi geek.

It was my first evolution; it changed everything. I still didn’t like ‘The Hobbit’, but I devoured ‘The Lord of the Rings’, its appendices, and swiftly moved onto ‘The Silmarillion’ and ‘The Unfinished Tales’. It made me take interest in Harry Potter. I discovered Trudi Canavan. The Chronicles of Narnia, which I had already loved as a kid, became even more important. As a writer now I write about magic, and it is all because of Tolkien and Peter Jackson.

It was also the beginning of my passion for special features; how it was made, how they did it, how the actors felt being part of the production. I read the movie guides and re-read the books again and again. It wasn’t just with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ I did this. It spread to other passions. I practically memorised the Star Trek Encyclopaedia by Michael and Denise Okuda as well.

Being a geek was something I did with trusted friends, my parents and in the privacy of my room where I could devour my interest, safe in the knowledge that no-one could stop me from enjoying myself. I didn’t know what it meant to be an introvert at the time, but knowing that now, explains a great deal about why I was a private geek. This continued on for many years.

Discovering Fan Fiction

Up until I was about sixteen the internet had nothing to do with my life as a geek. The geekiest thing I did on the computer was read the Encarta Encyclopaedia. Despite the internet becoming more popular, it was something the cool kids did.

Given they called me names in person and my books didn’t, I didn’t really gravitate towards using emails, MSN messenger or MySpace, because books were better. The first email I sent was when I started university in September 2006. I didn’t join Facebook until 2007 because my boyfriend (now my husband) persuaded me, and also set me up a personal email account at the same time.

Before then I hadn’t shown much interest; I can even remember the first time I accessed a website. It was at school, and one of the German teachers looked at me as if I was completely thick when she told us we needed to access a website and I said didn’t know how; conversation went like this.

“Miss it doesn’t seem to be working.”

“Type in the correct web address.”

“Yeah Miss, I’ve done that, but it isn’t coming up.” So I closed it down and started it up again because she thought it must have been the connection. She watched me type in the address again. I waited. “See Miss it isn’t working.” Then the look came.

“You need to press enter,” she said in an incredibly condescending tone.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said. I pressed enter; it worked.

“How did you not know that?”

“Never used the internet before Miss,” I answered. The look again; I got it from quite a few classmates as well.

Admittedly, I must have been about fifteen, this was 2003 and the internet wasn’t exactly in the flush of youth anymore. I think using the internet was expected to be a basic skill. Needless to say I try and watch my tone when people admit they can’t do basic things; if you’ve never been shown then, HOW are you supposed to know?

And now I had been shown, I still wasn’t interested.

It’s rather miraculous really that I ever discovered online Fan Fiction. I’m not even entirely sure why I found it. I think it was because I’d been writing Harry Potter fan fiction (from the Marauder Era, but my protagonist was a character I created, and J.K. Rowling’s characters were just there for me to practice with). When I discovered other people did this too, it never occurred to me to join them and publish my writing online.

I was taught that sharing online was a dangerous thing to do because there were nasty people on the internet. There still is and I’m still careful, and I think the re-definition of ‘troll’ is one of the best examples of how language can be re-purposed.

It was also because I had no desire to share my stories online. If I was going to be a writer, then I wanted my work to be in a book and printed on actual paper with ink. I still want that now. I dread to think what people would have thought of my writing, because reading it back it is terrible. But it was practice. I did however have a very short phase of reading other people’s fan fiction with great interest, but I was only ever interested in Harry Potter. I knew Lord of the Rings stuff existed, but I had no interest in it.

It was I guess my first introduction to what we now call shipping. As a fan of the Harry Potter books I always thought Harry and Hermione would end up together. I still think that, but I’ve always been of the opinion that J.K. Rowling as the writer had the right to do what she wanted with her story, and I accepted that. In Fan Fiction though I was drawn to Hermione and Severus Snape ending up together.

It is weird thinking about it now, but all I can assume attracted me to it was the fact that I related a great deal to Hermione as a teenager, in the same way I did to Matilda when I was even younger. They were both girls that loved books and were rather clever, and they were accepted as such; I say the shouting of ‘swot’ down the corridor stopped hurting. It would however have been nicer to not have to hear it at all.

And Snape was for me the perfect complex character. I didn’t quite know what he was really thinking or who he was really working for; he was a mystery and I loved him as an anti-hero. At this point Alan Rickman had also been cast, and I have a soft spot for him, because I loved him as the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I cried, several times, when I learnt he had died; I do that very rarely for celebrities, Natasha Richardson having been the previous instance. All I can assume is that I liked the combination of Hermione and Snape, because as a hormonal teen, it was a weird way of having a crush on an actor.  This phase lasted probably about three weeks as a deep obsession, before I got bored and it petered away, and I went back to how I had been before; private.

There is however a reason why I have mentioned it; it was my first foray into the idea that people explore stories outside of canon. I’ll come back to that.

The University Years

I consider being a student at University as my formative years. Because in university, I met more geeks, and being into geeky stuff at university isn’t uncool. I didn’t have to talk in a hushed voice about my opinions. People in university are a lot more grown up than school kids.

I also theorise that alcohol, partying, and the freedom to do whatever you wanted outside of parental constraints but within the law, changed most people that thought being a geek was a bad thing by teaching them a lesson. The lesson being that people are allowed to be whoever they want to be. All the geeks, nerds and swots actually had a head-start on the cool kids with that freedom, because we had been free being ourselves for a lot longer.

I went out in Newcastle on my first night as a student; I was out until 3am with a girl I didn’t know but who I had to now share a bathroom with. I was also utterly naïve to partying, and I hated every minute of it. I stayed sober, and somehow managed to get myself to my 9am introductory lecture in the morning. I was bleary eyed, but I paid attention enough to discover I could be a student representative, and thus started my interest in politics, but that’s another story.

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That night, rather than go out again I stayed in reading a new book I’d treated myself to with my student loan ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger. It is the only time I have read the book, because the context I read it in is too important for me to consider going back to it just yet (this is how I still feel ten years later). I lost myself in its pages, rather than go out to ‘have fun’ just because I could. I already knew who I was as a person, and it was the sort of person who curls up with a good book rather than light up the ‘Toon’.

I did meet people at university though, including the man that is now my husband. I did it my way though, via social interaction that didn’t involve being hungover the next day. I was bruised, but that happens in Karate. I made friends on my history course, and through my hobby, and discovered commons interests with them. With my partner, we shared our interests by binge watching box sets, and talking about geeky stuff we loved as we got to know each other.

I was no longer a private geek; I had my partner and I had friends at university that were a lot more open to accepting me as being a geek. I was also becoming a great deal more certain about the fact that I want to be a writer. This lead me to the internet.

Social Media

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I have this blog, and it is the foundation stone for my platform as a writer. It links to Facebook and to Twitter. It linked to Google+ and being a good little social networker, I set myself up on Pinterest and Tumblr too; I was connected.

Google+ was the first to fall away due to it being mysterious. Pinterest never really worked for me and my blog. Tumblr just became somewhere else where I copied my WordPress posts to without much readership. It is only really on Facebook and Twitter that I’ve maintained my author platform.

Pinterest and Tumblr though become something else to me; they became the places I went to follow my geeky interests. I find crossovers amusing; there are some really great examples of fan art out there, and while I don’t participate myself I have been stunned by the creativity and dedication some people put into their passion.

I evolved again; I was no longer a private geek, I was a social media geek. I laughed alongside everyone else at the joke about the ‘basic’ girl being a bit frightened by fandoms.

I began to identify as being part of fandoms. I connected with other like-minded people. It became something that I would share with my partner; I’d even share content on Facebook with my non-geek friends as a demonstration of who I am as a person. I would laugh at, like, re-blog, pin, and tweet about things geeky that I loved. While my platform was still there for writing, it also became the online extension of the geeky part of my personality.

I was no longer a private geek, and when on this very blog I started to write reviews, I deliberately developed sections dedicated to certain fandoms. I doubt that I am alone in having done this, and I would very much correlate this rise in geeks creating content for the internet with the rise in franchises. Because why not? Fan content is free marketing. Why create something new, when what you can do instead is simply add to an existing franchise with a fandom that will go on to passionately share their fan-art and memes. Many will even go on to write fan-fiction.

This is who I became. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t admired everything that I’ve seen over the years with wide-eyed naivety. There are things that don’t amuse me, there are fandoms that I’m not a part of, and I don’t always agree with everything shared on the internet.

I am also just not that into shipping; the foray into Harry Potter fan fiction was brief. I also very briefly developed in interest in Reylo because of one sketch by a fan. I read one fan fiction dedicated to Kylux. Then people started shipping Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, and alarm bells went off in my head. I stopped paying attention to shipping and went back a step to crossovers, memes and great art work.

To be honest, I ashamed that I didn’t see what happened next coming from a mile off.

‘The Final Problem’

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Needless to say I no longer laugh at the joke about the ‘basic’ girl being a bit frightened by fandoms. Whether she was ever real or not, the joke was real and that girl saw something I didn’t. She saw the obsession of some fans and was frightened by how intensely protective they are their interest.

I’m not frightened; I am really disappointed.

As you can see from my essay, I have evolved as a fan over the years. I was the little girl pouring over books, and watching the television with my parents. I dipped my toe here or there into the internet, before becoming a confident half of a partnership not scared to be geeky together. And then I became the social media geek.

Over the years, what I have liked has changed. I mentioned ‘Matilda’ before; I was a massive Roald Dahl fan. That faded for years until I recently read ‘Love from Boy’.

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I am still a massive fan of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘The Silmarillion’, and I also like ‘The Hobbit’ films, despite the fact I dislike the book.

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I have had a love/hate relationship with the MCU for years; I hate Tony Stark, but ‘The Winter Soldier’ made me fall into love with the rest of the MCU. Now though I’m a bit ‘meh’ about it because I’ve got bored.

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I’ve also figured out why I’ve struggled to connect to Doctor Who in recent years because of the cancellation of Doctor Who Confidential which satisfied my love of knowing how it was made.

And there are many more; I am a Browncoat; I find joy in Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus books. There are standalone books like ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ that have wormed their way into my heart. I’ve never blogged about Harry Potter, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them re-sparked inspiration for my own writing.

I blog reviews and I talk about my passions a lot. However, except from having the odd discussion on WordPress with other bloggers, all of which have been pleasant even if we haven’t always agreed, I was only ever really an observer of internet fandoms.

I’m really struggling to be that anymore. Every time I go on Tumblr now I leave it feeling low. I’ve pretty much stopped because instead of cheering me up and being a place of refuge it has become a place where I only find hatred. If it was not for the fact I go on Tumblr to also read about Feminism, LBGTQIA and INTJ, I might have already followed through with my deleting my account entirely.  I’ve retreated on Pinterest; I haven’t deleted my ‘Geek!’ board but it is now a private place just for me and my husband.

I want to be a private geek again; someone who talks with like-minded people in person. The appeal of being part of a fandom died a sudden death and it utterly broke my heart. There have been actual tears because I loved going on the internet and seeing that I was not alone as a geek. I even tweeted this not long ago before I’d come to fully realise and process all of my recent feelings.

 

Like I said I wasn’t lonely as a geeky child, but there were fewer of us. Before the internet I hadn’t really been able to discover the true richness of being able to share your passions with other people. I was able to become that person over time and through the development of technology that put other people in the palm of my hand wherever I was, provided I had enough battery and a decent 4G signal. Pulling back from what I had become hurts.

It hurts all the more, because it isn’t what I love that’s changed and changed me like it had been before. Other fans crossing the line has forced this transformation.

I have been disappointed over the years by things I love. I don’t like ‘The Half-Blood Prince’ all that much, either the book or the film. I don’t hate J.K. Rowling because of it though. I was deeply disappointed by ‘Civil War’; I don’t hate the creators of the MCU though. I don’t dislike Tolkien just because I’ve never liked ‘The Hobbit’. I might never forgive the BBC for cancelling Doctor Who Confidential, or Fox for cancelling Firefly; I don’t hate the people who made that decision though.

And I might not have been thrilled with ‘The Final Problem’ the last episode in the fourth series of Sherlock, but I mostly certainly don’t hate Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss because of it. I certainly don’t send threating tweets or blog on Tumblr about how the creators are now not allowed to identify themselves as being who they are because people disliked what they didn’t do in Sherlock. I don’t lash out angrily at other fans because they are fans of Sherlock in a different way, and didn’t have the same hate-fuelled reaction to the episode. I don’t believe my opinion is the only one that matters and anyone else is wrong, which therefore justifies bullying.

I have never hated a writer because they did something I disliked. I’ve been disappointed, and fine yes the first time I watched ‘The Final Problem’ I was a bit bored. I wasn’t the second time though and while it will never be one of my favourite episodes it is still better than most television I’ve ever watched. In fact I would credit Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss with sparking off a bit of a television revolution. I doubt clever shows that don’t dumb it down for their audience such as ‘The Man in the High Castle’ or ‘Westworld’ would exist if the foundation of modern clever television that started with Sherlock hadn’t been laid.

I will never agree with the reasons people are justifying those actions ; the creators are human beings and that in itself is enough for me to be respectful. I reserve hatred for rare examples of human beings who are actively making the very real lives of human beings miserable. I’d never hate someone because of something fictional.

The fact people are acting like this has actually made me ashamed of being a geek, something I have never felt in my life.

I shed tears when I first saw Gandalf fall in Moria; I still cry when Dumbledore dies; I struggle to watch John Watson talking to Sherlock’s grave; and the ending to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress chokes me up just thinking about it. I’ve been moved to tears many times over the years because of the books, films and televisions shows that I have let into my heart.

I never thought I’d ever cry because another fan had hurt me, but I have, and those tears have been the most painful, because they came from the very last sort of people I ever thought; the sort of people who like me probably got called a ‘swot’ or a ‘geek’ or a ‘nerd’ when it was meant as an insult rather than as a way of identifying ourselves.

Moving forward…

I detest the word fandom now; I’m seriously contemplating editing my entire blog to remove the word. If it does disappear then you know I did.

I’m in two minds about keeping my Tumblr account, and I doubt my ‘Geek!’ board will ever re-emerge as a public board on Pinterest. I’ve stopped reading the comment threads on twitter, especially on anything Mark Gatiss tweets. I’ve followed him for years, for various reasons and loved reading the commentary because many of his fans are witty and respectful. Now, I always find one that isn’t.

I don’t want to be associated with that backlash. I don’t want to be thought of as a member of any fandom, because for me the word has come to be associated with being part of the ownership of what has been created. Rather than the writer being the owner, the audience is instead, which is a very postmodernism viewpoint and I dislike postmodernism for many reasons.

Fan Fiction in the days when I developed an interest in Snape/Hermione was a bit of fun. I should have known when people started shipping Daisy and Adam, rather than Rey and Kylo that the lines between reality and fiction, canon and fan fiction have become blurred. For some people I don’t even think they exist at all.

And I think it is going to take me a long time to come to terms with the disappointment I felt when fans of Sherlock lashed out in hatred.

For now I’m just pottering along; I’m still going to blog, because I’m not going to silence my voice because I’ve been disappointed by what others have said with theirs. I’m using twitter to tweet some geeky stuff, because I’m not going to deny part of myself because other fans have made me feel ashamed.

But the most recent evolution of myself as a geek has shaken me to the very core and I’m not going to get over that easily. I also don’t see this evolution of myself as a geek being able to move forward with the sort of positive progress I have made over the years; I can’t ever go backwards, but I don’t see forwards as being an option either.

I’m stuck as a geek who can no longer entirely trust other geeks to have my back even if we have a different opinion. We didn’t all hush our voices because we were ashamed of being who we are, some of us just weren’t as confident about being a geek as others. We whispered to save those that were a bit embarrassed from being overheard by our bullies.

I never thought the geeks would become like the bullies. Maybe I am just a bit more wide-eyed and naïve than I had thought.

Book Review: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

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Book Review: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

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‘The Vesuvius Club’ by Mark Gatiss is very much one of those books that found me at the right place, at the right time and when I was particularly receptive to falling completely in love with it. I’m relatively familiar with Mark Gatiss’ work as a screenwriter (not to mention a massive fan of said work) but it was only recently when someone mentioned to me in passing that he is also a novelist.

Naturally being a fan (and a nosy-parker) I did some research and I will admit on reading the kindle sample I was left a little bit uncertain as to whether it would be something I would enjoy, simply because it is very unlike anything I normally do read. I gravitate towards mostly towards speculative fiction or gritty crime (from before the Scandinavian authors became popular). As it turns out there are speculative elements, and while the protagonist I would say is more lucky than as clever as the likes of Poirot, I found more to enjoy than I had originally thought.

The book is the first in a trilogy centering around the character of Lucifer Box, a dapper secret service agent in Edwardian Britain, who ends up investigating a group of vulcanologists who are dying mysteriously. It is a light-hearted, witty romp through London and in the latter half of the book, Naples (of course, where else), where Lucifer has to try to solve the mystery and evade whoever it is that is trying to kill him. It’s a delightful read, with plenty of amusing names and remarks to entertain you along the way.

That wasn’t my first impression though. However, because I do have a great deal of faith in Mark Gatiss as a writer and because I’m trying to diversify my reading, I knew I would give it a go, but I made the decision to wait until I found a hard copy in a book shop rather than order it for direct delivery.

So several weeks later, I found myself killing time in St. Pancra’s train station. I was waiting for a train home to Newcastle, when I decided to go to Hatchard’s bookstore (well I say ‘decided’. I have found myself in bookstores before with no clue how I got there; it’s like a natural instinct for me to just enter them and figure out why afterwards). I’d had a half four start to get myself to London that morning, with another five hours before I’d be back at my front door. I was utterly exhausted and looking for something to keep me awake on the journey home.

Of course, I had brought a book with me, but it was heavy going with a rather grim plot, and I just wasn’t enjoying it. I knew if I tried to read it I’d end up asleep and in Edinburgh. This was when fate intervened and ‘The Vesuvius Club’ found me. I just knew that it was meant to be. I’d been uncertain about the book because of the flowery prose; it took just a little bit too much concentration to keep up with the descriptions. It was perfect for keeping me conscious.

Okay, I admit essentially saying ‘don’t worry this book isn’t a trained anesthesiologist’ is quite possibly not the best way to try and persuade you to give it a go. I promise I mean it in the nicest possible way: I did say, there was context in me falling in love with this book. That warm fuzzy feeling emerged when I realised I was traveling past Durham Cathedral, I was still awake, and I was dazed only because I been utterly engrossed in a really good book.

And it is with great irony that it the style of the prose, which had left me uncertain at first, is actually what I love the most. The book is told entirely from the perspective of the protagonist Lucifer. What I had thought to be a slightly superfluous use of adjectives and adverbs, is actually what creates one of the most distinctive character voices I’ve ever had the joy of getting to know.

I don’t entirely trust the reliability of everything Lucifer conveys to the reader, but that’s not the point. Everyone’s dialogue seems to be as witty and smooth as his own inner voice; while I’d initially thought I’d find that quite annoying, I actually find it endearing and rather amusing. It is a lovely foible of Lucifer’s personality; the desire to ensure that at no point could the reader possibly suspect that his life might not be as dapper, eccentric or as colourful as he would like to have us think. And I love it.

I’ve tried to read similar prose in the past, only to find myself bored and annoyed. It takes a certain amount of skill to pull it off properly, and I’m rather glad I put faith in Mark Gatiss’ talent as a wrtier. The imagery that got fired up in my head was fantastic, which forms an additional facet as to why I love the book so much.

Winston Churchill called it ‘the black dog’; Susan Calman ‘The Crab of Hate’. I call depression ‘The Thief’ because it robs me of the joy of seeing the colour, textures and beauty in the world around me. I’ve not been at my best lately, so to read a book with a character voice with such determination to ensure every minute detail of the world around him is colourful, textured, and  essentially glowing was wonderful.  It is what I found to be the most delightful part of discovering this book.

Needless to say I decided not to wait to find the second and the third books by chance; I’ve had them swiftly delivered to me.

 

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Film Review – Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2

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I have ignored the hype about this film; I watched the trailers only a couple of times, and just generally avoided getting excited about the film. I’ve been using my tried and tested method of going into the cinema with low expectations (it worked remarkably well for Assassin’s Creed), and given I’ve not been impressed of late with the MCU, I wanted to try and leave the cinema without having been disappointed.

Well I sort of succeeded, but I have had it confirmed for me that the MCU has indeed lost its power over me, because not even a Guardians of the Galaxy film could get me excited. I still absolutely love the first film; I think after the awful Civil War film, the Guardians of the Galaxy have supplanted Captain America and become my favourites from within the MCU, but the second film is just not as good as the first.

Sadly though I knew this was going to be the case before I saw it. The first film was a fresh slap in the face, and of all the protagonists within the MCU I feel like Peter Quill is the most relatable. However, because it was so fresh and new, I knew the second film could never be as good.

The thing is I don’t think it is a bad film, I’m just not in any rush to go and see it again. Gone are the days when I would be leaving the cinema and buying tickets for a showing the next evening so I could see it again as soon as possible. Genuinely I don’t think I’ll see this film again until the dvd release.

It is certainly spectacular, and the settings wonderfully created. The plot of the film was even paced, though I would argue it doesn’t really have a defining moment where your heart ends up in your throat. That might be because I’m not easily stirred when emotional moments are a bit predictable (and seriously they seeded the final scenes right at the beginning of the film, so if you know what you are looking for when it comes to foreshadowing, then you know where its going to end up).

The characters as well all reacted as expected to the plot of the film, and they all have a lovely development within the film. Baby Groot completely steals the show; hands down the best thing about the film. Completely adorable.

It is a brilliant film, and I’ve sure over time I will grow to love it, but if you’ve sensed a distinct lack of enthusiasm from this review, then you’d be right. By all means go and watch it; I strongly suspect you will love it a lot more than I do. But now having seen it, it has confirmed for me that my love affair with the MCU is well and truly over.

 

Book Review: Forces of Nature by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen

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I will admit I am entirely convinced that I was drawn to this book because of the pretty cover, so kudos to the designer for grabbing my attention. When I realised it was a book by Brian Cox though, I was almost tempted to just keep walking past. That is not a reflection on him (or his co-writer), or on science as a discipline. It is entirely to do with the fact that trying to read another one of Prof Cox’s books was particularly painful.

I have always been interested in physics, and some years ago I tried to read ‘The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen does happen’, by Prof Cox and Jeff Forshaw. I understood bits of it, but because I never studied maths beyond GCSE I found a lot of it incomprehensible and frustrating. I actually gave up trying to read the book, which isn’t something I’m particularly proud to admit, simply because I just felt too stupid. It was heartbreaking.

I know I’m not stupid though, but it is why I nearly walked past ‘Forces of Nature’. The cover though intrigued me enough to at least read the back. That is when I learned at least one section of this book is about ‘colours’. I am particularly fascinated by colour, hence my interest in the cover. While most of what I have read over the years comes from a historical and/or linguistic background, I am also interested in the scientific progress made in the area of optics. It was promising enough to get me to try another book by Prof Cox.

It is a decision I have not regretted. The book isn’t all about colour, there are four sections: Symmetry, Motion, Elements and Colours. I will admit that there are some equations in this book, but the subject of this book is about exploring the fundamental laws that form and govern our world, explored via the four themes. It is a great deal more approachable to someone coming from a non-scientific background to read.

And it is very much from a non-scientific background that I have to recommend this book, because I genuinely don’t know how much of the subject matter discussed is something that is common knowledge to people more engaged with science on an everyday basis than I am. It is interesting and engaging, and I learnt a great deal. You might not learn as much as I did from it, but if you are interested already you certainly won’t be bored.

I’ve been able to take away from the book several quite simple ideas that Prof Cox has managed to explain to me, namely the physics behind tidal forces and why the sky is actually blue. Knowing that, and being able to explain it to someone else has really boosted my self-esteem, because I know I’m not too stupid to understand it. I would argue that everyone can, if given the proper encouragement, which you get in bucket loads from Prof Cox.

Having this boost in confidence from this book has also made me wonder why I ended up having the reaction I did to ‘The Quantum Universe’. I will admit there might have been some underlying mental health issues I didn’t know I had at the time that wouldn’t have helped my opinion. I have unfortunately though come to a much more horrid conclusion; I had that reaction because I’m female, and I wasn’t encouraged in either science or maths at school.

In fact, my education practically killed my love of science and maths. I’ve even been able to remember the precise moment that I became completely demotivated by one of my teachers in science and had a flashback of the look of relief on a teacher’s face when I made the decision to not carry on studying maths (and advanced maths) at A-Level like I had been planning. An English teacher made a convincing bid for me to do English Language at A-level rather than chemistry; I naturally headed in the direction that was eager to have me learn with them.

And it is a shame, because I love science a great deal, however I’ve only been able to appreciate its benefits over the years, rather than be passionate about it like I had been a child. Years of doing it in school just ended up making it boring and the ‘it’s not for you dear’ attitude that I didn’t recognise at the time as blatant sexism, wouldn’t have helped. It would have made me think I just wasn’t good enough, which was likely as not the underlying factor that resulted in my harsh self-assessment of my intelligence.

I am going to have to try and read ‘The Quantum Universe’ again for one very simple reason; having read ‘The Forces of Nature’ I have re-discovered just how much I love science, and the book as given me back that passion. I don’t think I could ever thank Prof Cox or Andrew Cohen enough for that really.

 

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.