Archive for January, 2012

Least reassuring claim ever.

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Come back Bella and Edward, I didn’t mean any of it

If you get my Facebook feed, you’ll know I’ve spent about forty thousand million billion years snarking about all of the forty thousand million billion things that are wrong with Twilight. On the recommendation of a friend – who clearly felt I needed my Tortured Teen Undead Romance horizons expanding – I have finally got around to reading The Vampire Diaries. I am aware that I’m getting round to this long, long after everyone else and yes, I know there’s a TV series that I also should have watched (but haven’t). But what can I tell you? Sometimes I am very, very slow on the uptake and don’t listen well to what my friends tell me.

My friends tell me I do this a lot. I can't see it myself.

So. I was told to read The Vampire Diaries because it is, apparently, much better than Twilight. (I’ll refrain from describing in too much detail the vast oceans of space and time that lie between the two points of “Better than Twilight” and “objectively any good”). And I’m happy to admit that The Vampire Diaries does solve many of the flaws of Twilight. The human heroine Elena Gilbert is much tougher and more assertive than Bella Swann. The vampire hero Stefan isn’t an insane, controlling control-freak who spends every night counting Elena’s eyelashes while she’s asleep. The plot actually begins at the beginning, rather than showing up when the book’s eighty per cent in. The supporting characters are distinguishable from each other (I can even remember their names without looking). There is no Vampire baseball.

Clearly the word “However” is going to be used soon, but let’s save that for now and do the plot summary. Fragile beautiful girl living in small town lays eyes on pale, muscled, strangely alluring guy with hot car and is instantly smitten. Alluring guy is aggressively rude to fragile beautiful girl, but still rescues her from sexually threatening situations. Once this has happened they are legally obliged to be In Lurve, and yet she senses he is holding something back. He eventually confesses that he is a Vampire. There is a Bad Vampire, who probably twirls his moustachios in the mirror and will inevitably be the subject of a whole lot of oh-Elena-if-only fan fiction. Some people die. There is a prom.

Kristen experiences an unwelcome moment of clarity.

Of course, everyone on the planet who owns a pen, a brain-cell and a copy of Twilight has entertained the notion that they could do much, much better. And in the interests of fairness, I have to say that from a technical standpoint, The Vampire Diaries is, indeed much, much better. I really wanted to like this book, and I tried very hard indeed to do so. I’m sorry to say that I failed.

But, because I’m just that dedicated, I read it anyway. And kept chapter-by-chapter notes, which I will be posting up in batches. Here’s everything you need to know about the first five chapters. Enjoy!

And remember, I do these things so you don’t have to.

Chapter One – we meet our heroine, Elena Gilbert. Elena’s been in France for the summer, in circumstances which are supposed to be mysterious, but I bet it’s because her parents are dead. [Note from the future; yep.] She keeps an annoyingly emo diary, filled with thoughts of Sad Things and Culture, to show that she is a cut above those brainless airhead girls she is forced to associate with. So, that’s nice. Like Bella, she is pale and flawless and beautiful (but blonde. Because Bella’s cornered the market on Brunette). Unlike Bella, she clearly knows it. This makes her less Sue-ish, but more irritating.

On the way to school, a crow gives Elena the once-over. Okay, I’m sure this is supposed to be a surprise, but that crow is clearly a Bad Vampire in disguise. [Note from the future; it was.] Finally, we meet our hero Stefan. When we first see him, he’s draining a rabbit and doing some self-loathing.

Best line of the chapter; “Elena Gilbert, cool and blonde and slender, the fashion trendsetter, the high school senior, the girl every boy wanted and every girl wanted to be.” Kill this woman now, please.

Chapter Two – we are introduced to Elena’s two slavish minions. No, sorry, I mean best friends. Meredith is tall, dark, cerebral and clearly has sex on a regular basis. Jolly good for her. Bonnie is diminutive, ditsy, psychic, has red hair, and thinks that if she perms it, she will look taller. Okay, that’s…that’s not so good.

On the other hand, at least I can tell them apart, right? Maybe this will be better than Twilight after all?

How Bella sees the world.

Next we meet Caroline, who is Elena’s rival for, well, for everything really, and they indulge in some Mean-Girls-style dialogue. As a woman in my thirties, I find this annoying. On the other hand, this is also much better than Bella, who is oblivious to such petty rivalry and would instead be in the library right about now, having gawky thoughts about Romeo and Juliet.

Bonnie reads Elena’s palm, and brilliantly divines that she will soon meet a dark, handsome, not very tall stranger. And then, OMG, a Porsche 911 Turbo pulls up at the school and out gets Stefan, and the entire school creams itself. Just in case Ms Meyer’s lawyers are reading, Stefan is wearing sunglasses, so we can’t see if his eyes are topaz or not. Oh, and when Stefan and Elena are in the same class, it’s History not Biology, she smells like violets not freesias, and they don’t have to look at amoebas. He can still read minds, though.

It doesn't count as copyright infringement if you're being snarky.

Elena and Caroline decide that they will now compete for Stefan. (His opinions and preferences don’t really seem to figure in this plan, so let’s hope he doesn’t secretly prefer ditsy redheads with bad perms.) Elena muses for a while about all the boys she has dated and how empty they leave her feeling and how she is still searching for something, she doesn’t know what, but… something…and decides she will now dump her boyfriend Matt, because she loves him like a brother and he doesn’t satisfy that yearning she has that she can’t put a name to…

Seriously, are modern teenagers this unaware of their bodies? That’s a really depressing thought.

For the record, Matt is not giving any signs of being a werewolf yet, but there’s plenty of time. [Note from the future; as of the end of the first book, Matt is still not a werewolf.]

Then Stefan puts a nasty teacher in his place, making his own small contribution to the ongoing erosion of professional respect for educators everywhere. On the basis of 1) how he looks and 2) how much he knows about the history of the European Renaissance, Elena solemnly declares that He Will Be Hers, Oh Yes, He Will Be Hers.

Oh God. Oh God oh God oh God. I’m trying. I want to like it. I do. But seriously now – isn’t this all a little bit crappy?

Best line of the chapter; “Do you see that jacket? That’s Italian, as in Roma.” Because teenagers everywhere can unerringly spot Italian tailoring at a hundred paces. TRUFAX.

Chapter Three – opens with a brief, angst-ridden insight into the tortured yet fascinating mind of Stefan. We’re in Renaissance Italy, meeting Stefan’s family. Stefan’s brother is called Damon – an unusual choice for fifteenth-century Europe – and he is totally going to be that crow from C1. [Note from the future; he totally was.]

Also authentic Italian Renaissance.

Damon and Stefan are both In Lurve with a girl who is Elena’s Renaissance doppelganger, which will clearly end badly and set them up for an un-lifetime of deadly sibling rivalry. Stefan, I have only had to put up with your company for twenty-seven pages, and already I want to kill you. Let’s hope Elena doesn’t feel the same…

…oh, she doesn’t feel the same! Well, that’s a relief. Here she is giving Matt the kiss-off, and here is Matt making it achingly clear that he will now resign himself to being her little lap-dog for the rest of time. Great. Now I also hate Elena and Matt. Doesn’t anyone have any decency or self-respect around here?

No, clearly not. Elena is now ruthlessly bullying Bonnie and Meredith into keeping Stefan away from Caroline, presumably on the basis that possession is nine-tenths of the law. The path is now clear for Elena to make a fool of herself, which she duly does. Her cunning plan is to pretend that she’s been assigned by the Welcoming Committee to show him around, a plan clearly worthy of Machiavelli. Unfortunately, our actual Renaissance Man is unimpressed by this plan, and rudely storms out of the room. Possibly blocking up his nostrils to keep himself from being overcome by her delicious freesia-scented goodness. I mean violets! Violet-scented goodness. Violets smell completely different to freesias. Cancel the lawsuit.

If Edward had worn one of these on the wedding-night, "Breaking Dawn" would have been better in a great many ways, I think.

Best line of the chapter: “He had hoped to find peace here, but that was impossible. He would never be accepted, he could never rest. Because he was evil. He could not change what he was.” Indeed.

Chapter Four – Elena has what I can only describe as a completely bizarre over-reaction to Stefan not instantly wanting to rip her knickers off in the classroom when she made her alluring offer to show him how to open his locker and where the toilets are. She only laid eyes on Stefan about five hours ago, and already she’s heartbroken that he hasn’t fallen In Lurve with her. Sorry, but occasionally even Bella had the self-awareness to remind herself not to obsess over a very rude boy who she only met a week ago. (Occasionally.) She goes home early and mopes, then her Aunt and little sister get home and she runs out the back door and takes herself off to the graveyard. And there in the graveyard are her parents, oh yes. Didn’t see that one coming.

For some reason, Bonnie and Meredith then show up and beg her to share the secrets of her heart. Oh yes, please, please let’s hear the secrets of Elena’s heart! In a further break with Mary-Sue tradition, Elena actually does share the secrets of her heart, and makes her two friends swear a blood-oath that they will not try and steal Stefan and will totally try and help her get Stefan and none of them will rest until she has got Stefan and nothing in the whole world ever has been as important as Elena getting Stefan and I swear on the graves of Elena’s parents which they are all sitting on while they do this, I am truly not making this up.

NB Stefan has now been in town for about ten hours.

"And if he doesn't marry me within the week, I am going to kill everyone I know."

Back in the graveyard, Bonnie has a psychic moment. Some sinister shit happens. Everyone screams and runs. A homeless guy living under a bridge is the victim of something which we are supposed to believe is Stefan, but probably isn’t. I’m going with Damon. [Note from the future; it was both of ’em. Huh.] In L J Smith’s defence, this does at least mean the plot is progressing at the same pace as the swooning.

Best line of the chapter; “I swear to keep this a secret and do anything Elena asks about Stefan.” A minion in need…

Chapter Five – and let’s have some more angsty I’m-such-a-monster self-hatred from Stefan, shall we? Because really, it’s been what, a whole chapter since we last did that? Stefan has been out for dinner, and this has reminded him of kissing Elena’s doppelganger Elizabeth, which has reminded him of Elena’s violet-scented goodness, which is messing with his mind, and possibly some other part of his anatomy too. We meet his landlady, whose name, amusingly, is Mrs Flowers.

Mrs Flowers' blood smelled of dustbins and fox-vomit

There’s some more filler on Stefan and Elizabeth, but it’s dull, so I skipped through it. She’s a vampire, by the way. Oh, and I want to slap her. Stefan has a nightmare, proving that he does sleep and is therefore so totally not Edward with a slightly less beige wardrobe, and wakes up shouting.

To prove how their Lurve is so true even though they have only exchanged about twenty words, all of them rude, Elena wakes up thinking someone is shouting. I guess we’d better start looking for hats for the wedding, then. Slightly more usefully, Elena now has an even more Machiavellian plan to bag Stefan, which will totally work because it is brilliant. Apparently. I’m hoping it involves a tranquilliser dart and a giant net.

Damn it, there is no tranquilliser dart or giant net. Elena’s new plan is to spread the rumour that Stefan is “a narc” (which I thought was a seller of narcotics, but turns out to be an undercover policeman), which will keep Caroline away from him (Why? How? Is Caroline some sort of juvenile delinquent?) and also to pretend that she has a French boyfriend, called Jean-Claude. Let’s all just contemplate this piece of magnificence for a moment.

Then we go to Bonnie’s house and meet an annoying yappy dog called Yangtze, who I sincerely hope will be dead by the end of the book [Note from the future: yessss!] and Bonnie’s sister, who is a nurse and looks tired and tells them about some homeless guy who was bitten by a vampire under the bridge near the graveyard. Well, she doesn’t actually use the word “vampire”, but that’s because people in vampire stories are always strangely blind to the overwhelming evidence. Full marks for having a plot, L J, but I still hate every single one of your characters.

Best line of the chapter; “The glimmer of white behind a lemon tree. The feel of a sword in his hand; Guiseppe’s voice shouting from far away. The lemon tree. He must not go behind the lemon tree.” Yeah, I have nightmares about lemon trees all the time too.


That’s all for now, folks! Five more chapters of obsession, self-loathing and lemon-trees coming up soon.

Just in case there’s any doubt – I’m not recommending you buy “The Vampire Diaries”. Also, you probably have a copy already, right? Because I am astoundingly late to this party. However, if you absolutely must, it’s available on Amazon for £4.26.

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Once again, this Great Moment comes to you thanks to my brother’s father-in-law Andy, who found and photographed this poor, trapped sheep in a carpet shop in Huddersfield:

If it could only replicate that pose just six inches to the left, its little hooves might accidentally push the door-handle down and it would free itself from its prison. But somehow, it’s just not happening. I’ve noticed that flies and bees often have the same problem with open windows. Maybe it’s a complex form of animal humour.

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I’m happy to admit I only decided to read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon because I, like many others, have a thumping great crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. This entire review will be written through the filter of how much I love this TV series, and my primary assumption will be that Gatiss and Moffat have reinvented the “Sherlock” stories into the form that they clearly should have existed in all along. I appreciate this is probably enough to compel Conan Doyle Purists to take out a contract on my life, but since I don’t (as far as I know) have any Conan Doyle Purist readers, I’m going to assume that’s not really much of a problem.

Holmes is so much part of our cultural landscape that even illiterate peasants like me know quite a lot about him. Victorian London, deerstalker hats, violin-playing, middle-aged flat-share, cocaine addiction, a whole lot of homo-erotic tension poorly concealed beneath a late marriage and a housekeeper, Professor Moriarty, dressing-gowns, deerstalkers, tobacco smoke, blah blah blah, Holmes dies then comes back to life again, not quite sure how it ends. Written out like that, it’s probably not surprising that I wasn’t all that excited about reading the original stories.

In preparation for reading the book, and to make sure I was approaching it in the right spirit of intellectual enquiry, I did a quick audit to discover what my friends and I all “know” about the cultural significance of Sherlock Holmes:

1. Holmes is the world’s first fictional detective, and therefore responsible for the Crime genre
2. Holmes is somehow something to do with superheroes, not really sure how, but for some reason he keeps turning up in comics and films and so on
3. It’s all a bit homo-erotic and odd

Strange But True: All books automatically become 15% more enjoyable if you imagine this man in the title role

1. Holmes is the world’s first fictional detective, and was therefore responsible for the Crime genre
There’s no doubt that Holmes is hugely important in the history of crime-writing. Apart from anything else, he was hugely influential in the implementation of modern forensic practice (the number of times he has to rail at the idiots who have walked all over the crime-scene in their humungous Size Nines is slightly alarming). In this sense, he’s definitely one of the forefathers of Poirot, Whimsey, Marple, Morse, Wexford, Scarpetta and all the rest of them.

However, in the sense that I am not an awful lot like my grandmother, the Holmes stories are not an awful lot like modern detective fiction. There’s very little point in trying to guess the outcome in the Holmes stories. Sometimes this is because you don’t have all the facts – Holmes’s denouements quite often include a casual mention of some small but vital piece of evidence he read (but you didn’t) in last week’s Evening Standard. Sometimes this is because the “facts” are made up by Conan Doyle, and we now know they are impossible. (I especially like the story where the explanation for a man behaving like a monkey every nine days is because he has been taking monkey-extract to try and become more sexy.) And sometimes this is because the psychology of the characters is laughable to the point of stupidity.

Take “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”, for example. Grant Munro comes to Holmes and tells him that his previously-married wife has been deceiving him. She has borrowed £100 and begged him not to ask why, but has apparently spent this on installing a lover with a strangely yellow face in a nearby cottage. Rather than just, you know, freakin’ ask her about this or anything – because asking would be breaking his promise – he decides to consult Holmes. Holmes’s initial theory (which would make sense) is that the figure in the cottage is Mrs Munro’s first husband, but the eventual solution (which makes no sense. Seriously) is that the “yellow-faced” figure is Mrs Munro’s child by her first husband, dressed in a mask for the purposes of concealment. Husband number one was black, and since their child is visibly mixed-race, Mrs Munro decided to keep her a secret. However, she then started to miss her very much, so decided to smuggle her over to England and keep her in the cottage, and visit her occasionally. Quite how long she thought she might get away with this is anybody’s guess. The moment where Mr Munro takes the child in his arms, welcoming her into his family, is really pretty lovely; but hiding the child in a cottage for an undefinite period, and funding said cottage by asking your husband to give you enormous sums of money you never account for? Surely the stupidest solution to any parenting dilemma in the history of man.

I can see why he didn't see that one coming.

In fact, generally speaking, Conan Doyle’s characters are pretty cardboard and unbelievable. It doesn’t help that he was an ardent believer in Phrenology, which means that his characters tend to look like who they are. Evil people look evil, sneaky people look sneaky, dissolute rakes look like dissolute rakes…you get the idea. Of course it’s possible that Watson is just a superhumanly good judge of character, and can instantly spot a wrong ‘un; but it doesn’t make for an exciting big-reveal finish.

Saying that, and mad-Victorian-pseudo-science aside, the stories are often pretty exciting. Think of them as adventures rather than mysteries, and it all starts to make a lot more sense.

Which brings me nicely onto my next point:

2. Holmes is somehow something to do with superheroes, not really sure how, but for some reason he keeps turning up in comics and films and so on

And you know what? Having read the original stories, I can see exactly why this is. Holmes is far more like Batman than he is like Poirot. (Indeed, with his short fat physique, relentlessly Continental outlook, odd facial hair decisions and determined commitment to psychology over forensics, it’s possible to see Poirot as Holmes’s wilful polar opposite.) Like Batman, he has powers which are almost but not quite superhuman. Like Batman, he’s often called in by the police when they need a bit of help. Like Batman, he’s an oddly sexless figure who seems oblivious to any sort of female wiles. Like Batman, he’s volunteered himself to keep the streets of his home-town safe from criminals, and often puts himself in great physical danger to do so. Like Batman, he has a devoted sidekick. And like Batman, he has a Nemesis…although I have to say that if the Joker had only appeared in one story and then died at the end, I imagine the entire series may have been a little less successful.

Also had a spurious anti-homo-erotic housekeeper.

Finally, like most superheroes, Holmes belongs to his fans. All the best superheroes take on a life of their own. They can be endlessly re-cast and reinvented to suit the needs and dreams of a new generation. I’m sure that if I ever got my hands on Detective Comics #27, I’d be pretty disappointed by the writing. But the first time I read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, I was moved to tears by it. By moving out into our collective consciousness and letting us do pretty much whatever we want with him, Holmes has indeed become a Superhero.

And what is it that we all want to do with Holmes, I wonder?

3. It’s all a bit homo-erotic and odd
It was somewhere about the second page of the first story, “A Study In Scarlet”, that I realised what this was all about. Anyone who doesn’t read the scene where a young-ish Watson, invalided home from Afghanistan and looking for cheap accommodation, moves in with a madman who shoots patterns on the living-room wall when he’s bored and doesn’t know the earth revolves around the sun, is missing the best bit. From their initial relationship of utter perplexity with each other, their relationship slowly evolves into a deep and abiding love.

Is their love a true romantic entanglement? Clearly, we’re not the first generation to wonder. One thing we all “know” is that Conan Doyle was so worried by the sly innuendo surrounding two confirmed bachelors sharing rooms that he was forced to marry off Watson and install a housekeeper. Except that, like a lot of elements in the stories, there’s a definite divide at The Final Problem.

A surprising amount of Holmes-lore only exists before Holmes goes over the Reichenbach Falls. The cocaine-addiction, Watson’s marriage, the financial practicalities that force both Holmes and Watson to share living-quarters with a stranger, any attempt to pretend that Watson has stuff to do that isn’t being Holmes’s sidekick and most of the uneasy tension with Scotland Yard belong to the pre-Final-Problem stories.

Of course, “The Final Problem” has a big significance in the Holmes canon, since it represents Conan Doyle’s last attempt to escape his destiny of being known for Holmes and nothing else for the rest of time. Poor man, he actually thought he might actually be able to escape by pushing his hero over a waterfall, in one of the most crappily-constructed stories of the entire set. Incidentally, people who rave about “The Final Problem” as a glorious moment in detective writing: you are wrong. Moriarty, who hasn’t been mentioned at all in any way up until now, is brought in, in a casual oh-yeah-sorry-I-never-mentioned-before-but-I-seem-to-have-this-Nemesis way that makes my teeth itch (although I will admit to liking the description “The Napoleon of Crime”). Holmes and Watson go yomping off round the Alps, Holmes sends Watson back to the hotel room to check they didn’t leave the iron on or something, and while he’s gone Moriarty pushes Holmes over the waterfall. Only he lets him write a long letter to Watson first, explaining what’s about to happen. The end. All the action takes place off-screen, and one of the greatest fictional characters of the age is killed by some bloke who we never get to meet. The only person who can possibly have enjoyed this is Conan Doyle, who must have thought he’d finally escaped and would now be able to write other stuff instead.

The moment Martin Freeman realises his most significant career moment will no longer be kissing Lucy Davies.

But then there was a concerted letter-writing campaign by ravening fans, and Conan Doyle relented, and brought Holmes back to life. It definitely feels as if this is the moment when Conan Doyle decides to stop worrying about how things look, and just kind of go with it and do what the fans wanted. And almost as soon as he made this decision, the entire quality of the Holmes / Watson relationship changes.

Here’s a passage from a pre-Falls story, “The Man With The Twisted Lip”:

“[Sherlock] took off his coat and waistcoat, put on a large blue dressing-gown, and then wandered about the room collecting pillows from his bed and cushions from the sofa and armchairs. With these he constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which he perched himself cross-legged…So he sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so he sat when a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up, and I found the summer sun shining into the apartment.”
(The Man With The Twisted Lip)

Sorry, I know it’s childish to laugh, but come on, right? I can’t make up my mind if this is Conan Doyle having a sly Julian-and-Sandy moment, or a genuine Freudian slip. But the point is, it’s only funny because we’re all still pretending that Watson has other people in his life who mean more to him than Holmes, and other things to do with his day than go around in a van solving mysteries. Post-Final-Problem, everything’s out in the open, and the world is a much better place as a result:

“When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and last time in my life. Certainly a grey mist swirled before my eyes. and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.”
(The Empty House)

I found this genuinely moving – in the same way I was moved by Martin Freeman’s performance in the modern re-telling. Watson’s dearest friend, who he loves more than anyone else, has just come back from the dead, and he’s overcome to the point of losing consciousness. In general, Conan Doyle isn’t great at writing emotion, but for once, he gets it right.

Is there a tinge of eroticism in this scene? The swooning, the brandy, the loosened clothing? There could be, but I don’t think there has to be. We all assume that the most important emotional connections of our lives will always be sexual as well, but there’s no rule that says it has to be. Holmes and Watson clearly love each other. Who cares whether that love is sexual or not?

Being a starry-eyed romantic, my favourite Holmes moment is probably the moment in “The Three Garridebs”, when Watson is shot during the course of the action. Holmes is utterly horrified, and shows it – a moment Watson clearly treasures:

“It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”
(The Three Garridebs)


I suspect that ultimately, this is why we all like Freeman and Cumberbatch so much. They’ve got the Watson / Holmes relationship absolutely right. Like Kirk and Spock – that other great emotional / logical couple of heroes who whizz around the multiverse discovering stuff and having adventures, they’re right on the cusp of stuff men are supposed to like (guns and action) and stuff women are supposed to like (men showing their emotions). In this modern incarnation, Holmes and Watson become the perfect platonic Bromance.

But of course, if you prefer, you can also just assume that they’re at it like rabbits.

There are about ten million billion different editions of Sherlock Holmes available, but the one I have is the Kindle edition, which is available for a parsimonious 77p.

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Another moment of genius from Andy, my brother’s father-in-law. We’re all trying to persuade him that he should start his own blog, but until that happens, he’s continuing to generously donate his spots to me.

I really can’t top Andy’s own Facebook comment on this, so I’m just going to quote it verbatim:

“This chap wouldn’t inspire me to buy the thermals underwear, and why has he got a budgie on his finger?”

Well said, Andy.

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Author and blogger Caroline Smailes is putting together a flash-fiction anthology in aid of the charity One In Four, who support victims of sexual violence and abuse. The anthology will contain one hundred flash-fiction stories, each of one hundred words or less, and each inspired by a different song.

As someone whose natural authorial style is not-terribly-succinct, I’m especially proud that for once I managed to stick to the word-limit, and tell a story in a saintly ninety-eight words. And I’m delighted that the piece I wrote, entitled “Birthday” (inspired by the track “Kiss Me“, from Tom Waits’ album “Bad As Me”) is one of the hundred chosen for inclusion.

Everything about this anthology’s happening fast, fast, fast – the shout-out for entries was only a week ago and already the final selection’s been made – so I can’t yet tell you the title or publication date, or share the cover artwork. But I can tell you that all profits from the anthology will go to support the work of One In Four, so I’ll be shamelessly soliciting you all to buy a copy to help support this very worthy cause.

Watch this space!

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Tonight’s Great Moment was kindly provided by my brother’s father-in-law Andy. He saw this while on holiday in Malaga and took a photograph for me. After careful consideration he decided not to order the sandwich.

Usually with foreign-language errors, it’s pretty easy to spot what the author was actually getting at, but this one’s defeated me. “Wound sandwich.” What on earth can it be? There’s nothing you might conceivably put in a sandwich that’s spelled even faintly like “wound”.

It’s as if the writer had one of those moments where you accidentally say entirely the wrong word, like the time I thought I’d asked my friend if she’d like a bun, then mentally replayed what I’d said and realised I’d actually offered her a toaster – only it happened to him in a foreign language.

“Wound sandwich.” The more I look at it, the more opaque it becomes. “Wound sandwich.” A total mystery.

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I predict that one day soon, I am going to be on the television.

It will be on one of those List programmes that programme makers use to fill late-night slots where almost everyone watching is drunk and a little bit lonely. It will be called something like “Top 100 Stupidest Domestic Accidents” and will have one of those high-octane American presenters who can sound surprised and enthusiastic about pretty much anything.

My headline will be something like: “Stabbed through hand when Baked Beans ring-pull failed to operate!” Probably I’ll be quite high up the list.

And on that day, everyone who knows me has my full permission to get in touch by any means they find pleasing, and convey, in Greek-Chorus-style unison, the following message:

“This is what you get for throwing away the tin-opener.”

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In Which I Attempt To Resurrect An Unjustly-forgotten Classic

In a pre-internet age, the “1950s kids solving mysteries” genre was pretty much all about Enid Blyton. If you wanted to enjoy the fun of middle-class kids being as rude as hell to working-class adults and getting away with it, or senior police officers siding with said middle-class kids at the expense of his flat-footed subordinates, or see the phrase “only a girl” being used entirely without irony…the only place to go was Blyton’s Famous Five, or Blyton’s Secret Seven.

Five Go Through Other People's Personal Possessions

Of course, Other 1950s Kids Solving Mysteries were always available. We just never had access to them. Finding them was matter of chance and luck; of rummaging through jumble-sales in church halls and second-hand bookshops in seaside towns, and just hoping you’re going to strike 1950s Kids Solving Mysteries, But Not By Enid Blyton gold.

But these days, we have choices. Thanks to the miracle that is AbeBooks, absolutely everyone* can enjoy the wonder that is “Holiday Camp Mystery”: a bizarre low-rent kid’s mystery set in the world of Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Clacton, and featuring the obligatory horrid, precocious children (in the shape of Sydney, Kenneth and Theresa Edmonds and their friend Judith Lawler) and inexplicably dumb criminals.

You know how some books just grab you right from the very first page? This one hooked me within three short paragraphs:

“Doesn’t that girl look lonely and miserable!” exclaimed Judith Lawler.

Her companions, Sydney, Kenneth and Theresa Edmonds, all studied the solitary figure sitting on the sea-wall outside an old grey stone building which bore the sign, “The Fair Haven Inn”.

“I’d have the ‘willies’ if I lived in such a dark, dreary looking place,” pronounced Sid. Then, turning to his brother and sister he suggested, “Let’s go along the road to the right.”
(Holiday Camp Mystery, Page one)

What an opening! This is sheer writing magnificence. Who couldn’t fail to be instantly gripped by the casual judgementalism of these four kids, sitting on a wall and loudly pronouncing on the emotional state and domestic arrangements of a fifth kid who is a total stranger to them? I also love the strangely brilliant and superbly awkward expositional line, “Let’s go along the road to the right”. (Try saying it out loud for maximum enjoyment.)

Privileged Aryan children practicing for a lifetime of judging others

But the ‘best bit’ but is ‘clearly’ the ‘use’ of the ‘apostrophes’ to ‘highlight’ the ‘word’ ‘willies’. As someone ‘prone’ to over-punctuating everything, I ‘sympathise’ with the desire to add ’emphasis’ to your ‘words’ in this ‘manner’. But I can’t shake the mental picture of this kid sat on the wall and making little marks in the air with his fingers.

Also, I don’t really want to shake the mental picture of this kid sat on the wall and making little marks in the air with his fingers.

Also used by scary Creationist politicians

Anyway. As we quickly learn, “Holiday Camp Mystery” is set in the glorious world of Butlin’s Holiday Camp. It’s really not possible to do justice to just how much the only purpose of this book is to be a hugely extended advert for Butlin’s Holiday Camps, or exactly how much carefully-researched detail about every aspect of Holiday Camp life the writer manages to cram into her story. Here are some of the things I learned about Butlin’s Holiday Camp in the course of reading just the first four chapters.

Some of the things I learned about Butlin’s in just the first four chapters:

– On arrival, each camper is assigned to a “House”. All campers compete for prizes for their House during the time they stay at Butlin’s. At the end of the week, the winning House is presented with a silver cup.
– Kent House restaurant is a large white building outside the children’s playground
– Said children’s playground is a veritable paradise of fun, containing swings, a merry-go-round, a slide, a climbing apparatus (one of the “latest toys”, apparently) and many life-sized models of horses. This list, far from being exhaustive, represents “only a few of the stupendous toys in the playground”.
– As if that wasn’t enough, there is also a playground for younger children, as well as a room at Beaver Lodge which is “packed with large toys”.
– During dinner, you will be entertained by a “camp comic” dressed in “queer clothes and a large, funny hat”. So, that’s nice.

A funny hat would have made his career even more successful.

– Also during dinner, a disembodied voice will call out to you over the loudspeaker and demand to know if you are enjoying yourselves. The correct answer is “yes”.
– The large cardboard clock on the wall is an ingenious device for the fair allocation of a bottle of free champagne. One of the red-coat staff spins the hands to select the winning table number. Great kudos is attached to the winning of this champagne.
– After dinner, you will be entertained by the camp comedian (it’s unclear if he will still be wearing his queer clothes and funny hat) plus a number of red-coats, who will perform a “very amusing knock-about turn”.
– On Sunday you go to the “camp chapel” (personally I find most chapels pretty camp, but that’s probably just the dour Anglican in me coming out) which has a chocolate coloured carpet and a small well-kept altar (do altars require a lot of keeping, I wonder?). Also a vase of white flowers and a large picture of the Last Supper.
– If you’re under twelve, you have to join the Beaver’s Club and learn secret signs and activities, and also get a badge and a birthday card and a Christmas card. Presumably you will have left the camp by this point, which means these people also have your home address. Just saying.

Mr Butlin isn't happy

– If you’re over twelve but under the age of consent sixteen, they make you join the One-Five Club. You also get a special badge to ensure the redcoats don’t try to fuck you and are forced to learn skating, jiving and square-dancing.
– Beaver Hall, where the pre-pubescent inmates are stored safely out of the reach of their parents, features brightly-coloured murals which “tell of the adventures” [sic] of “Mickie [sic] the [sic] Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto the Dog”.
– After you’ve been indoctrinated into the appropriate club, you join a grand march to the open-air swimming-pool, where the Camp Comic will continue to be both Camp and Comic.
– There is a “Girl with the Prettiest Hair” competition, and a “Boy with the Knobbliest Knees” competition. The significance of knobbly knees in the context of male beauty is not made clear.

Unfortunately his knees are out of shot.

– Because “the Butlin Company does not charge a big fee for admittance of children” – and furthermore, because “if the person is a friend of a camper, then it’s half-price” – local children (such as Valerie) can come into the camp to visit for the day, thus avoiding the need for the visiting children (such as Judith) to ever leave the camp at all, apart from when they are busy solving mysteries.
– Butlin’s is probably pretty much my idea of Hell.

This is why I love Viz magazine.

Clearly, life at Butlins is a pretty special experience. Possibly this accounts for the why, in the cloistered ‘world’ of the Butlin’s ‘Holiday Camp’, everyone seems to go around ‘doing’ the air-quotes ‘thing’. I’ve tried quite hard to ‘work out’ the ‘rules’ of this particular social ‘meme’, but so far I’m ‘baffled’.

Words* which are ‘put’ into ‘apostrophes’ by various ‘people’:

‘soaking up’ [sic, as in “he is ‘soaking up’ to her”. Maybe ‘suck’ is just too rude for a children’s story]
‘flics’ [sic – I’m assuming from context the speaker is referring to moving-picture shows rather than French policemen]
‘no goods’ [as in, “they are a bunch of ‘no-goods'”. My new favourite insult]
‘window shopping’
‘sit down’
‘The Keep Fit Time’ [strictly speaking this isn’t slang; I just liked Sydney’s inclusion of ‘the’ in his description]
‘free’ [surely the word least suited for qualification by air-quotes]
‘mink’ [unless the author meant to imply that the ‘mink’ is ‘fake’?]
‘into our hair’
‘hopping mad’
‘get going’

Words** which you’d think – being as they’re clearly part of the same 1950s argot as the words above – would also be candidates for being put into apostrophes, but are surprisingly not put into apostrophes:

super [the only word I can find which appears on both lists]

I thought I'd get the obligatory cat-shot out of the way early this time. This one represents confusion.

Moving onto the action. There are two plots, neither of which are important, and both of which feature Sydney, Kenneth, Theresa Judith. Plot A, which takes place outside the camp, involves a spooky falling-apart house called “Kismet” next door to the local pub, a girl called Valerie, a crap ghost story, a portrait that allegedly comes to life and a smuggling-ring. Plot A is sketchy and vague, possibly because the writer has saved up all of her detailed thinking and description for Plot B. Plot B is basically about Sydney, Kenneth, Theresa and Judith winning great and inexplicable amounts of social acclaim by entering talent contests, interspersed with a great deal of pointing and laughing at fat people.

For example, they would probably have loved this photo. In fact they probably *took* this photo.

All the children are strangely focused on the great importance of winning contests during their stay. Perhaps their mothers beat them with sticks if they don’t come home with trophies every night, I don’t know. But there must be something more going on to justify the enormous lengths they all go to in order to win.

Things which, according to this book, are acceptable in the context of a Holiday Camp Talent Contest:

– Children who have just completed a six-month performing tour of England and Scotland*** entering as competitors in the talent contest
– Said children**** loudly and openly mocking other, more nervous contestants – who have not had the benefit of six months professional touring – as “jittery amateurs”
– Open enlistment of the judges’ sympathies by contestants***** telling tales on other contestants, who have engaged in an admittedly unfair act of destruction which was nonetheless motivated by loyalty to their sibling
– Open enlistment of the audience’s sympathies by the compere repeating this tale on the night of the Talent Contest final
– Additional private coaching being given by the conductor of the Camp orchestra to one of the contestants in order to help them overcome the disadvantage they have allegedly been put at by the fat kids

Strangely easy to coerce.

Things which, according to this book, are not acceptable in the context of a Holiday Camp Talent Contest:
– Being fat
– Being ugly
– Being “visibly untalented”
– Having a bad frock
– Having hair which has “been crimped in an unnatural way”
– Playing the piano in a way which reveals the child has been excessively coached, or as we like to call it these days, “taught”
– Playing the piano in a way which does not reveal the contestant to have a musical soul

"Please God, make me thin and pretty so the other children will stop making everyone else hate me and my mother will no longer crimp my hair in an unnatural way. And grant me a musical soul. Amen."

As is traditional for the genre, everyone’s parents are strangely absent. Valerie-from-the-pub’s parents are dead, but Mrs Lawler and Mrs Edmonds are still on the scene. Not Mr Lawler and Mr Edmonds, though. Perhaps this accounts for the strange note of wistful predatoriness that occasionally creeps into their wives’ dialogue:

“Is that a first-aid man, Kate?” whispered Noreen Lawler.

“Or a doctor?” answered Mrs Edmonds in a low tone of voice. “Although he’s young he has an air of authority about him.”
(Holiday Camp Mystery, page twelve)

And where, exactly, are Mrs Edmonds and Mrs Lawler while their children are prowling around other people’s houses and being interfered with by red-coats? Their accounts of their days are vague and unsatisfactory:

“Judith asked: “Mummie, dear, how did you and Auntie Katie spend your morning?”

“Mostly ‘window shopping’ in Clacton.”

“Yes, agreed Mrs Edmonds, “and when we got footsore and craved for a ‘sit down’ we wandered into the public library.”
(Holiday Camp Mystery
, page twenty-one)

Surely the only reasonable explanation.

The two plots unravel with a pleasing lack of suspense, surprise or excitement. All the people who look like they are ‘no-goods’ turn out to actually be ‘no-goods’. The surprisingly predictable appearances of the “ghost” that Valerie finds so terrifying is, indeed, directly connected with the deserted falling-down house next door to the pub, the poorly-hidden boxes of expensive imported shit and the people who look like they are ‘no-goods’. Sydney, Kenneth, Theresa and Judith put all the pieces together with casual expertise, and also clean up on the Trophy front (which presumably means their mothers don’t beat them after all, or at least not that night anyway). Most predictably of all, the £100 reward given to Judith is going to be spent on bringing everyone back to Butlin’s Holiday Camp again next year, because they simply can’t imagine life without it. Probably in the intervening months before their next visit to Paradise, they’ll pine away and refuse to eat their dinners, because they can’t properly enjoy those dinners if they’re not eating them in a restaurant which has tanks of tropical fish and is underneath the swimming pool so as they eat their food, they can watch the people swimming under water.

This would look even better seen from underneath while eating your dinner next to a tropical fish-tank.

Is this book as good as Enid Blyton? Well, being totally honest, it’s not as well-written. However much Enid Blyton might have needed a visit from the Idea Readjustment Fairy, there’s no doubt she could at least actually write.

But for sheer entertainment value, “Holiday Camp Mystery” is streets ahead. I strongly recommend that you buy it, and read it aloud to your friends and family. Don’t ‘forget’ to do your ‘air-quotes’ at every ‘opportunity’. They’re bound to ‘love it’. Unless they are ‘a bunch of no-goods’.

*Well, I might be exaggerating the availability of this book just a little bit. Currently, AbeBooks only appear to have one copy of “Holiday Camp Mystery“. It’s also available through Amazon Marketplace. And I’m sure that if enough of us start hunting for it, more will come out of the woodwork. Oh, and make sure you don’t buy the Ladybird Early Reader, “The Holiday Camp Mystery”, by William Murray. It’s not nearly as much fun.
**There are undoubtedly more, but I thought that a close-reading of any more than the first ten chapters was probably a bit too obsessive even for me.
****Also Sydney.
*****Go on, guess. He’s a little shit, this child, I’m telling you.

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"Especially for the paint. Paint makes us very, very nervous."

“You WILL use a basket. At ALL TIMES. This is how shopping works in our country. No go away and shop. QUIETLY. And don’t make a mess.

“And is it too much to ask that you stay away from the paint? Paint makes us very, very nervous.”

“Hang on – wait a – what the hell are you DOING? Are you using that basket to take stuff TO YOUR CAR? Your car that’s OUTSIDE THE STORE? What the hell are you THINKING? I mean, my God, those things aren’t free, you know?

“Look, it’s really simple, okay? While you’re IN the store, you use a basket. We’ve seen what you people can do with your hands when you’re bored. Frankly, it makes us sad and angry. We’re all much more comfortable when your hands are where we can see them. But as soon as you step OUTSIDE the store, you stop using the basket. These babies are made of the finest low-grade plastic money can buy. Exposure to UV-radiation can cause serious damage. Or maybe they sparkle in the sunlight. We’ve never actually tried it.

“So anyway, that’s why the second you leave the store, our baskets instantly transition from Compulsory to Verboten. You know what? I really enjoyed our little chat. Have a great day!”

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