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Archive for July, 2012

See, I’ve worked in Marketing. I know how many, many millions of person-hours are spent in the kind of meetings that only come to an end when the participants have faked their own deaths in order to escape, for no other reason than to ensure things like this don’t make it to the nation’s TV screens. And I’m saying this as someone who’s just discovered her Twitter handle can be misread in Holland as “Fuck Yeah”.

You just couldn’t make this up.

With special thanks to Tony Parkin, who cheerfully lent his brilliant photographic skills to preserve this for the nation.

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“Today is our crying assembly,” Becky informed me this Friday morning. “We all sit in the school hall and talk about how the Year Sixes are going to secondary school, and we’re all changing classes. And then we cry. Yes, all of us. Yes, even the teachers. Yes, even Mr Clarke.”

And then, I think to myself, then, you and Ben will come out of your classrooms with an armload of papers, report cards, junk models, random snippings of cardboard, heartbreakingly sweet exercise books (“I can smell…flowers, Mr Clarke” “I can hear…the hej trimmur”), bad photos, battered indoor shoes and your mouldering PE kits. And then, I will cry. Because while I can see how much these things all mean to you, I have nowhere to put any of it.

Unsurprisingly, I think my kids are brilliant. I could quite happily fill the whole of cyberspace with endless anecdotes about how amazing they are. I love everything about them, from their mad early-morning conversations with the cats, through the barrel-rolls they always do across our bed on the way in or out of the bathroom, all the way to how good the backs of their necks smell when I kiss them last thing at night. My husband and I are both in awe of their endless creative obsession with plasticine, to the point where he had to build them a website so they could share their modelling brilliance with the world.

But oh, dear God, those giant bags of detritus that come home at the end of the school term.

It’s not that I’m completely heartless (or at least, I hope I’m not completely heartless). I can see this stuff has meaning. I understand that, when Becky looks at the cardboard tube covered in tinfoil and stuffed with shreds of orange and yellow tissue, she’s reminded of the day the Olympic torch came to our town, and we turned out first thing to go and see it, and – contrary to my cynical expectation – it really was a lovely, exciting sight.

I can also see how much work has gone into it behind the scenes. Before Becky could make that torch, someone else had to decide how to fit the Olympic theme into the creative-arts part of the curriculum, then choose an appropriate project, then work out a suitable construction method for children aged eight to nine, then test that method, then allocate the right amount of time for it to be completed, then assemble and prepare the bits to do it. And I’m genuinely impressed by the result. As Olympic-torch junk-models go, I think this one is awesome.

It’s just that I’m not sure I really want an Olympic-torch junk model sitting in my house, on the mantelpiece, for the rest of time.

And let’s be clear; if it stays, it really will be “for the rest of time”. In this house, we get more attached to things as time passes, not less. After something’s been part of the landscape for more than about three weeks, it takes on a meaning of its own, and can’t possibly be thrown away. We have Hallowe’en spiders hanging above the table which have been there for over three years; Christmas pictures that have happily seen in their second summer solstice. Suggestions that they might be taken down provoke expressions more suitable to amputation.

I’m taking full responsibility for this. My kids are like this because I’m like it too. As I type this, I’m looking at a small cardboard box that probably used to have a single chocolate in it, sitting on my bookshelf. The box is empty. The box is made of cardboard. The box is plain and dull. The box has no objective value whatsoever. But the box has been on that bookshelf for months, and when I think about getting rid of it, I feel sad. So it stays.

This is why I have to throw out ninety-nine per cent of the stuff my children bring home. It’s not because I don’t value it; it’s because I am in danger of valuing it too much. I could fill my entire house with an archive of their childhood. I could preserve everything, from pre-verbal finger-paintings to sixth-form essays, stacking it up around me in towers that I have to crawl between in order to reach the front door. And then when I die, they would come into my house and look at it and be baffled, and think, “What on earth did she save all this lot for?”, and get rid of it.

Ben’s recent school residential was on the theme of Elmer, the patchwork elephant. And while sorting through Ben’s weird scribblings and jottings and odd pieces of painted clay and enigmatic sheets of red A4 paper with one corner cut off and a single green line drawn across the centre (“No, mummy, I need that! That’s my secret pass to get into the Power Ranger base!”), I came across this.

Whoever it was on the school staff who looked at a plastic detergent bottle and saw the form of Elmer, waiting patiently to be released – may I please tell you that you are brilliant? Because you are. Even if I’d been clever enough to see it in the first place (which I wouldn’t), there’s no way I’d have been able to summon the manual dexterity needed to cut it out, cleanly and neatly and leaving no sharp edges. But you did. And then, under your gentle guidance, my son applied squares of tissue to it – squares you will have prepared for him, and not just for him but for all his classmates, so you must have accomplished your detergent-bottle-Elmer miracle up to thirty times – and together, you and Ben created Elmer.

On the one hand, it’s made out of a cut-up detergent-bottle and some squares of tissue paper. On the other hand – it’s made out of a cut-up detergent-bottle and some squares of tissue paper. It’s the best junk-model I have ever seen in my life. It’s so good that even Becky – whose normal attitude towards her little brother’s productions is tolerant kindness – stopped on her way to the kitchen and said, “Hey, look at that…that’s brilliant.”

Kids, I hope you understand why I throw out most of what you bring home in those tattered, leaking carrier-bags. I don’t want to turn your home into a terrifying paper shrine to your entire childhood selves. But Elmer is staying. He’s going on the mantelpiece, next to the photograph frame Becky made three years ago, out of cardboard and string and dried flowers and silver spray paint. Or maybe he’s going next to the elephant my grandpa brought back from Africa when he was shipwrecked there in the Second World War. My grandpa’s elephant is made out of ebony with ivory inlay. Elmer’s made out of a detergent-bottle and squares of tissue-paper, and he’s got googly eyes that you buy in packets of 100. And he’s staying.

And when you’re cool and moody teenagers, you’ll both be mortified that I still keep a home-made photograph frame and a detergent-bottle elephant, and you’ll beg me to throw them away, and I’ll laugh, and I’ll tell you they’re staying. Because I can already see there’ll be a day when you’ll be adults, and will no longer bring home bagfuls of stuff for me to inspect, exclaim over and then dispose of. I’ll tell you that parenting is a journey, and that every journey generates its souvenirs – oddly-chosen perhaps, and beautiful to no-one else, but still we keep them, because that’s what human beings do. And these days that are passing now will never come to me again.

And you made these things for me when you were six, and they’re staying.

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A French colleague of mine once entertained an entire office of people by getting very, very angry about Angel Delight. He had seen it in the aisle at Sainsbury’s, and been completely perplexed by it. “What is it?” he demanded. “It’s Angel Delight,” we replied. “Yes, but what is it?” he demanded. “It’s…it’s Angel Delight,” we repeated. “You know. Angel Delight. Angel Delight! What? What?

“But the packet tells you nothing!” he said. “How am I supposed to know what to do with it? We don’t have this stuff in my country. The only way to know what it is, is to already know what it is! It’s like some sort of secret society.”

None of us were ready to admit it at the time, but he did have a point. Angel Delight makes total sense to people who grew up in the UK in the seventies, and no sense at all to anyone who didn’t. We can’t explain it because we’re too close to it, and everyone else can’t understand it because we can’t explain it. Imagine trying to explain the taste of Coke to someone who’s never had it before. It tastes like…like Coke. You know, Cola! Coca-Cola! That flavour! The flavour! Of Coke! Coke! Coke! It tastes like Coke!

I like to think there’s a similar explanation for Dryck Påsksmust, currently on sale in the IKEA Restaurant in Leeds:

Usually with drinks, even if the name itself conveys nothing to you, you can get some sort of idea what’s going on from the label. I can’t be sure what Dryck Nypon is going to taste like, but I’m guessing rose-hips have a hand in it somewhere. But Dryck Påsksmust is giving very little away.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that you’ll learn something from the small print:

So this drink tastes of…Swedish Festive Drink.

Well, hell, why not? Why should IKEA feel compelled to explain it any further? Why should they kidnap some poor, benighted designer and force them to draw the taste of Swedish Festive Drink made with hops and malt? Much better to allow Dryck Påsksmust to remain as it is, alone and enigmatic, sticking a defiant two fingers up at the cultural imperialism of the English-speaking nations.

Note: since I originally took this photo, I have since discovered that Påsksmust is a sort of Easter version of Julmust, which is native to Sweden and is drunk in ridiculously huge quantities around Christmas. This is why Wikipedia is possibly the single greatest achievement of the twenty-first century.

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After a six-week period where my entire life seemed to be taken over by “Fifty Shades of Grey”, it feels very, very good to be writing about a book I loved. “The Passage” is the kind of book where you’re torn between galloping through it at a breakneck pace because you can’t wait to find out what happens next, and going slowly so you can savour the writing.

Oh, and which also features the Immortal Undead. Always a huge plus-point. Can you tell how much I loved this book yet? I hope so.

Plot summary. The first third of the book takes place in near-future America. A single mother struggles raise her daughter Amy alone before finally abandoning her in the care of a convent of nuns. Meanwhile, Professor Jonas Lear takes a military-sponsored field-trip to a South American jungle to find and bring back a mysterious virus which he believes will allow mankind to live for hundreds of years – possibly by turning them into vampires. Finally, Wolgast and Doyle are FBI agents charged with the extraction and smuggling of Death Row prisoners – plus Amy – to a secret Government facility where they can be infected with the jungle virus to see what happens.

Unsurprisingly, giving a Vampire virus to a bunch of Death-Row murderers doesn’t go well. They mutate into weird bloodthirsty monsters, they escape, they start infecting everyone else, the whole world goes to Hell in a handcart. But Amy – the last trial subject to be injected with the virus, and the only one who has remained reasonably close to human – is smuggled out of the facility by Wolgast, and hidden away in an old summer-camp to try and ride out the Apocalypse.

I’d actually prefer the Abandoned version to the other kind.

The second part of the book is set ninety-three years later and follows the fortunes of a small, isolated colony of humans. As the descendants of a few lucky original survivors of the Apocalypse, they’re leading a moderately satisfying existence behind a huge wall and a bank of super-bright lights that keep the vampires away at night. But after ninety-odd years of service, their equipment’s beginning to wear out and the technology needed to repair it no longer exists. When Amy’s path crosses theirs, they form a desperate plan to try and save their colony from certain collapse.

While the book is billed as a Vampire novel, it’s worth saying at once that this book is far more like a Zombie story than it is like a Vampire one. If you want a story in which pale-faced old-world aristocrats play at high politics and do terrible decadent things in a carefully-orchestrated bid for power, this is not the book for you. But if you (like me) have room in your heart for both “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead”, then you’ll probably love it, because in a sea of mediocrity, this is a Zombie story that really stands out.

After several decades of Hollywood Zombie movies, the tropes of the Zombiepocalypse story are so well-rehearsed that directors have resorted to glomming two genres together and seeing what happens (Zombiepocalypse / Gangster mash-up, and it’s French!! Zombiepocalypse / Nazi mash-up, and it’s Swedish!). For the record, I’ve seen both of these movies, and they’re both kind of fun; there’s just not much mileage in pretending they’re actually any good. In contrast, what impressed me most about “The Passage” wasn’t the new elements it brought to the story (being honest, there aren’t any) but how well the story was told.

This Zombie has now automatically lost the argument.

Telling a good Zombiepocalypse story requires you to avoid a massive number of elephant-traps. The first and most basic one, But Why Would You Do Such A Thing, is the problem of why a bunch of seemingly sensible and well-intentioned people would set out to do something so utterly, pointlessly risky and dangerous (“Hey, look, a deadly virus! Let’s store some in a glass test-tube and then smash it!”) that it rapidly leads to the destruction of all mankind. The classic answers to this are Because They’re Just Evil, M’kay, and Because They Think They Might Save Mankind – usually with the not-very-subtle subtexts of Everyone In Government Is Evil, and Everyone In Government Is Stupid.

Cronin goes for the well-intentioned-but-stupid solution, which isn’t unusual. What is unusual, though, is how well he constructs it. In most Zombie stories, everyone’s just desperate to break out the leather coats and the chainsaws and get on with the schlock. This means the initial trigger-event is often confined to one clearly insane power-crazed scientist dropping a fragile glass test-tube in a lab with hard floors and no containment facilities. In “The Passage”, Cronin carefully documents the multitude of great-sounding ideas, conflicting agendas, morally dubious decisions, ill-founded optimism, small errors and inevitable technical failures that collectively add up to disaster. Cronin’s Zombiepocalypse requires a nationwide effort to get started, and it’s much scarier, because you can see how it might happen.

“I have total confidence that repeatedly blasting my Iredeemably Evil Cell-culture with Immortal Growmatic Power-Rays will end well for the human race.”

The next big elephant-trap, The Special One, is doubly tricky to pull off because Cronin’s Special One is a little girl with superpowers. I’ve written before about how inexplicably awful most writers are at female super-powered characters. Add in the challenges of convincingly writing a child, and suddenly you’re balancing on a piece of cheesewire suspended over a fiery pit filled with fire-resistant alligators and slightly out-of-control metaphors. With bare feet.

And yet somehow, Amy isn’t excruciating. In fact, she’s rather delightful. This is achieved partly by keeping her quiet. Amy hardly ever speaks to anyone, which avoids the need for the amusing misunderstandings and naive questions that set my teeth on edge about Daniel Torrance and Carol Anne Freeling. It also helps that most of the time, the adults around her are a lot more focused on not dying than they are on understanding the intricate intricacies of this intricate child’s intricate and utterly enthralling mind (Danny Torrance again, sorry. I do love “The Shining” really).

But mainly, it’s just because she’s…likeable. Not cute. Not adorable. Not winsome. Just…likeable. If I absolutely had to take someone else’s kid to a Theme Park for the day, I can imagine Amy being sort of good company. And when she’s seemingly the last character standing from the first third of the book, I don’t hate her for making it out when so many good people have been killed off.

Would not be welcome on theoretical trip to Theme Park.

Which leads nicely into the first elephant-trap Cronin doesn’t entirely dodge: the Body-Count Conundrum. In the Apocalypse instalment of a Zombie story, there’s really only two ways to go – Everyone Dies, or Lone Survivor. Amy’s status as Lone Survivor is mentioned in the first line of the book, so it’s not a surprise that she’s the one who makes it out. What I was surprised by, though, was just how very upset I was when everyone else was killed off. After several hundred pages of heavy emotional investment, it was simply awful when, a third of the way in, I realised all the adult characters were dead, and I was going to have to get to know a whole new lot of people in order to get to the end of the book.

I was expecting some of them to die, of course. But imagine if George RR Martin killed off all the Starks, all the Lannisters, all the Targaryens and the whole of the Night Watch about a third of the way into “Game of Thrones” and then started again on another continent with a whole new set of characters. Would that be fun? Even the brilliant segue of the evacuation sequence wasn’t quite enough to console me.

Like this, only you consider every single person lying there to be a close friend.

But then we have the First Colony story, which is so great that I cheered up and fell back in love with the narrative. Lying in wait for any unwary visitor to a second-generation survival colony is the excruciating Tomorrow-morrow-land Error, where the survivors are portrayed as cheerful simpletons who have no idea of the gravity of their situation, and whose bare remnants of understanding about the outside world are more of a hindrance than a help. The first time I saw children referred to as “Littles”, I admit my toes kind of curled up just a little bit. After that, I was kind of on the fence for a while. Just because there hadn’t been an annoying camp-fire reminiscence about the magic people with their special flying machines who were coming to save them one day and fix everything so just hang tight and don’t worry, it’ll all be all right folks, so far, didn’t mean there wasn’t going to be one any minute now.

Then I got to this beautiful passage:

The day-to-day. That was the term they used. Thinking neither of a past that was too much a story of loss and death, nor of a future that might never happen. Ninety-four souls under the lights, living in the day-to-day. (p292)

This is the exact moment in the book when I decided to get over my huge upset over Wolgast’s death (sorry to spoil, but that’s what happens) and enjoy the rest of the story. Unjustified optimism as a deliberate, intelligent choice. And really, isn’t this how we all live? Until we’re forced to, do any of us ever contemplate the fact of our own mortality? That’s how you avoid the Tomorrow-morrow-land Error.

And this is how you don’t.

Cronin’s already batting way, way above the average for Elephant-Trap Dodging, so I’m not going to complain about the two remaining ones he doesn’t quite manage to avoid: the Dance With The Devil, and Here Comes The Military. On their journey through the Apocalyptic wasteland, the Colonists encounter a parallel group of survivors, who seem weirdly interested in pregnancy, and weirdly short on boys. If your first thought is “Sacrificial Breeding Programme”, you can have a large gold star, and if your next thought is “Which The Outraged Colonists Will Now Destroy”, you can have two. If I was on a mission to save some paper and make this book a bit shorter, this is the section I’d delete. Maybe it’s got a bigger role to play in the sequel and I’ll be recanting later, I don’t know. But in a huge cast of well-written, well-rounded characters, the Site B people stand out as a bit clumsy and one-dimensional.

The book ends with the traditional hook-up with some army guys, the discovery of the Big Bad Apocalyptic Super-Weapon, and the final showdown with the Vampires in which Amy’s superpowers are revealed. It’s possibly a measure of how very well-written the rest of the book is, and how absorbing the stories of its characters, that I was actually a bit bored by this part. Vampires, hive-minds, still some humanity remaining inside, blah blah blah, explosion. The good guys win. Hoorah. Now can we please get back to the people stuff.

I get why this is in here, I really do. Movie-makers have conditioned us to expect the traditional Everything-Explodes turbo-charged ending, and Cronin does the very best job any writer can at re-creating this in prose. It’s just that – you know – it’s not a surprise. The only tension comes from wondering who’s going to get maimed and how badly, and whether Amy’s superpower will be Re-awakening Humanity, Horde Control, or both. And after hundreds of pages of sustained Brilliance, I was officially too spoilt and jaded to properly enjoy scenes which were merely Pretty Good.

Meh.

So, what happens next? Well, we already know there are going to be at least two sequels. The opening line of the book is “Before she became the Girl…who lived a thousand years”, which clearly suggests a sweeping-epic sort of timeframe. I can see I may well have to bid a regretful farewell to the colonists on the grounds of either Vampires or the normal aging process, and get to know a whole bunch of new people – who may also then die of Vampires or old age. Possibly I’ll have to do this several times over. I’m also sort of thinking “Dune”, and “Star Wars”, and “Clan of the Cave Bear“, and wondering if the next two books can possibly live up to the first one.

But the honest truth is, they could probably afford to be only half as good as the first one and they’d still be brilliant. I’ve pre-ordered “The Twelve” for my Kindle and damn, I’m looking forward to it.

“The Passage” is available from Amazon at £5.19 for the paperback or £4.99 for your Kindle.

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With thanks to the lovely @becchanalia, who spotted this piece of enigmatic brilliance in a dentist’s waiting room and has very kindly let me share:

I can’t make up my mind if this is ridiculous, or actually sort of brilliant. Because on the one hand, the Chihuahua speaks sense.

But on the other hand, why anyone ever thought that the concept of Infection Prevention was best illustrated by the concept of a Chihuahua styled by Vivienne Westwood…

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