“Give Me A Reason. Please.”

The title of this post is a line from that classic of cinema, the Lost in Space film from 1998. Joey from Friends pulls a gun on Beethoven after he tries to do something dastardly and says those immortal words. I am metaphorically holding a gun to 2014’s head and saying the same thing.

Last year, it must be said, sucked. Overall it felt like a waste of bloody time so I’m determined to make something out of this one. I did accomplish some stuff: Read 50 books, got a poem accepted by Penguin, wrote a novel and a poetry collection; but more generally accepted ‘normal’, everyday stuff people have like: a job, money, regular meals, a permanent abode, a partner, romance, an active social life, remained elusive. Or non-existent in many cases. If I’m honest the best thing that came out of last year was the discovery of an app on my phone called Vine. I wrote a post about it in the summer but since then things advanced quite rapidly. I have three new best friends I talk to everyday because of it. The ONLY date I have been on in over two years was because of it (don’t get excited, it didn’t end well). I found a whole community and made some other great friendships and real, true-blue artists with some wonderful talent have encouraged me no end. Sadly they almost ALL live in North America. Like anything, particularly social media, its what you put in that you get out and Britain has most certainly NOT caught on to the wonders of Vine yet as we seem to lack the outgoing spirit required to show off for 6 measly seconds. And to be honest, I’m glad. I’ve been living something of a double life on there for the last seven months and it has been a breath of fresh air to get the “anything goes”, carefree ebullience of the American/Canadian way of thinking. Sadly it has its crappier side, like anything inhabited by humans, but unlike Twitter I restricted my intake and was rewarded for only following a small amount of people whom I actually liked. There is a growing British contingent but by and large they’re (for me) not that interesting/funny yet, a broader community will help but that’s a way off for the time being. Whatever, Christiana, Paulette and Ryan are three of my favourite people in the world right now and have been the most attentive and wonderfully kind friends anyone could want, whether they live in Massachusetts or not. I love those ladies. And I love Vine for introducing me to them and the other gaggle of friends I now have.

My novel is all but finished in its final draft form, it merely requires another full read through to spot any screw ups and we’re done. I’ve also cobbled together the best of the poems I’ve been writing over the last couple of years into a full collection (as opposed to a pamphlet) which is also pretty much done. This means, hopefully I can spend this year touting them around. I’m not holding my breath – keeping expectations low these days is the only thing that’s keeping my head above water – but at least I have ‘product’ to sell that I believe is good and finished to a submittable level which is more than I can say for other projects I’ve embarked on in the past. Last year showed me that writing is what I enjoy the most and what I am best at and that it is what I should be trying to do with my life so having these things “in the bag”, as it were, to send out is a considerable boon.

Instead of cramming books this year I’ve decided to give a few “BoxSets” a go, or at least watch a lot of TV shows online. On the list is: Series 4 and 5 of Breaking Bad, The Wire, Dexter, Mad Men, Broadchurch and basically the whole of 30 Rock (I know I know I know, I don’t watch TV). This doesn’t mean I won’t be reading this year, oh contraire, I have a little list planned. I shall endeavour to read some of the ‘Big Uns’ this year. As I read so many last year and only just managed my task I thought I might try my hand at the bigger, longer books. I am not going to be reading War & Peace or Clarissa because frankly I want to do something other than read this year but I am going to relent to pressure from various sources and give the impenetrable sack of words that is James Joyce’s ‘Ulysees’ a go. Numerous people have insisted I read it, especially if I want to ‘do’ poetry, so am relenting. I’m told the best way to go about it is to “dip in and out” and if its good enough for Marilyn Monroe its good enough for me. I really enjoyed The Dead last year so figure I might as well. Another task is to actually read the whole of Homer’s original Odyssey as opposed to skimming and finding the best bits like last time. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is on the list too for reasons that I shall elaborate on further throughout the year. A long held desire has been to read the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo as I’m a fan of classical ripping yarn as I discovered last year so that’s on the list too. JK Rowling and her alter-ego’s books are also TBR for this year. Frankly I think that’s enough to be getting on with for now so I shall let you know how all that comes along as and when and my thoughts on them when/if I finish them. I may not finish Ulysees this year to be honest as I have read passages before and felt my eyes begin to curdle but never let it be said I shy from a challenge.

Beyond that my real ambition this year is not to be such a lonely sad-sack. I refuse to spend another year in its entirety, single. I am bored of being alone and tired of having not even had more than one date in two years. I have no idea how I’m going to go about this as all the things people REPEATEDLY tell me I should do I have been doing: I’m constantly out gigging and DJing in various bars and clubs (i.e. getting “out there” as is so often stated), I let friends introduce me to people, I try online websites (subscriptions fees limit the usefulness of this) and yes that includes Vine, I’ve gone from timid wall flower to just flat out asking women out, yet all to no avail so frankly society you can keep your “tried and tested” means to yourself. There seems to be no end of advice people who aren’t single have for you as a single person and frankly its all been twaddle thus far. I think the real reason I have remained single is that I don’t drink. That’s a major drawback when flirting/having no confidence. Either way I’m not a hideous troll, I’m not unkind or crass and nor am I an idiot so I think I deserve some sort of romantic entanglement. Christ knows I’ve earned it.

I’ve updated this here site as you might be able to tell too and will hopefully be posting more now I have my computer back and the internet. Thanks to those of you who have stuck around to read my ramblings, its nice to see the traffic figures continue to maintain a steady readership even if its not that many of you. In the meantime, Happy New Year and if we could try to maybe be a little nicer to everyone and stop killing each other or screwing each other over for financial gain, that’d be great. Thanks.

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Sunday Special: My Favourite Photo

I’ve been a photographer for a long time and worked in a photo lab for a good 7 or 8 years. Consequently I have seen a lot of photographs in my short life and it takes something to really make me love a photograph. I confess to loving Black and White more than colour (because I’m a ponce) but any ‘brand’ of photo can catch my eye. There is one photo in particular I keep coming back to lately however that really caught my attention and I frequently return to. I am seriously tempted to name it as my favourite and I want to talk about why. Because I’m like that. Anyway, here it is:

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That’s Marilyn Monroe reading modernist author James Joyce’s Ulysses on a merry-go-round on a summer’s evening. In case that description alone doesn’t do it for you I shall elaborate why I love this photo in particular. There are a great deal of frankly beautiful photos of Marilyn Monroe reading but this one has a special place in my heart for numerous reasons:

  • Monroe and the epoch

On a purely personal level Monroe, along with maybe Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch, is probably my favourite female personality of note. Not only is she honestly one of the most beautiful but she is also one of the most complex. In the same way Sylvia Plath invites nothing but the closest scrutiny of her personal life in spite of her truly amazing talent, Monroe was actually an incredibly gifted actress, essentially performing a character as her ‘real-life’ persona. Seven Year Itch is a performance of rare self-awareness for someone frequently depicted as a “dumb blonde” (she was, of course, a natural brunette). I wish I could be all non-Male Gaze about this but the fact is Monroe is just seriously hot. She has a great figure, cute-as-a-button features and her confidence made her almost literally glow. This photo captures that in more ways than I can put my finger on. To me Marilyn is at her most gorgeous when she is not playing to camera or smiling (as are most people) and this photo is the best example of that. She seems genuinely engrossed in the book. I am not naive enough to think the photos of her reading were not cynically manipulative marketing of Norma’s persona as The Great Marilyn but it is also pretty dumb to assume she didn’t enjoy to read at all or that she was not enjoying said literature. I am also a man who wishes he had lived in the 50’s & 60’s. I love everything about these decades, even the politics, as it seems does everyone else. This photo screams 1955 and for that alone I love it. Put in the most beautiful and remarkable woman of that decade and you have a photo I cannot help but like.

  • The Book

I am an advocate of the Modernist Movement in general (much preferable to the tedious and worn out post-modernism we seem unable to shake) and few people seem to sum up its ideology more than Joyce and Eliot. Personally I don’t care for Joyce and think Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are intractable messes of novels meant for analysts not casual readers but they are undoubtedly incredible achievements in literature that justly deserve their place in the ‘Great Works’. Knowledge of and opinion on this is perceived as okay for someone who wants to be a writer, or an academic, or someone ‘well read’ but surely it comes across as (my most loathed word) pretentious most of the time and surely when being read by a model in a shoot. I don’t agree. Its a book at the end of the day and should therefore be read by anybody of any class, colour, sex, creed or nation that wants to read it. Marilyn unlike some other photos seems to have honestly forgotten about the shoot and Eve Arnold and is engrossed in the bizarre stream of consciousness flowing out of the book. Not only all that, why Ulysses? It was thirty years old by then and probably still not *that* widely known – certainly not as well known as Monroe – to make the audience think of her more seriously. Why not read Lolita that had come out that year if you wanted to seem more ‘intelligent’ through what you are reading? More relevant, often considered amongst other Modernist tomes like Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and more controversial and therefore better known. Or why not Waiting for Godot? or Fahrenheit 451? Call me innocent if you like, I honestly think this was Monroe’s copy and was not a prop used by Norma for Marilyn’s development. Eve Arnold (the photographer) says this is the case, that Monroe found it tough to read but enjoyed it nonetheless, occasionally reading it aloud to help her understanding (something that is demanded of it by the learned readers of Modernist literature and poetry at large). Either way it gives massive depth to the shot but probably not in the cynical way marketing people may now consider.

  • Eve Arnold and Technique

Arnold (who sadly passed away last year) was one of the Grand Dames of photography and photographed everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to Malcolm X, an early Magnum photographer too. Her most notable work is that of her shoots with Monroe. Understandably. Arnold’s style is my favourite kind. Non-flash, candid, almost voyeuristic framing and capture. This photo is a standout however of this form and an exemplar of technical proficiency. I haven’t looked too hard into what gear Arnold used I can only assume it was little SLR or a rangefinder such as a Leica (this is my best guess as the light gathering is perfect). I’d imagine a 50mm lens too judging by frame and distance. She’s got the aperture wide open which means a shallow depth of field which she has gauged with scientific precision. Focus point is on the book, a hairs breadth in front of her face softening her features wonderfully. That kind of skill and perception is no accident but probably wasn’t thought about, just a natural eye and instinct great photographers develop over time. The shutter speed is dead on, slow enough for a bit of exposure and bleed in that all-too-gorgeous summer evening light but quick enough to hold Monroe in position and not smudge. Her hair is caught in a gust making it blur slightly adding to the ‘in the moment’ feel it has, making you feel like you have stumbled on a home shot, family album picture not a considered and posed model shoot. She has also picked a spot just out of direct sunlight but with enough diffusion to give Marilyn’s skin highlights without blowing them out. All this probably done in the blink of an eye or without too much thought, just a master photographer who knows her trade at the top of her game.

  • Colour

More than anything else this is probably the most integral factor of this photo and my favourite aspect. From the darkness of the tree’s shadow on the floor and Marilyn’s feet to the hazy bleached gold blur of the trees in the background via the verdant greens of the trees and the almost edible tones of Monroe’s skin this photo is a fountain of pigment. Not garish or too wide a palette nor too muted or restrained, it is neither real nor unreal merely that glorious Technicolor that had suddenly become the flavour of the time. Just look at the sumptuous gold and green of the background, there’s an instant Proustian rush of being in the garden late into the summer evenings caught in that same light. The peculiar peeling rust of the merry-go-round that is both bright blue and orange that is at once odd but equally beautifully matches the overall tonal range. Monroe herself with her immaculate tanned skin that people so desperately try to bottle and sell in this day and age yet never somehow get that rich feminine look, is like a slightly garish oil painting. And then there’s that top. Typical of the era and Norma’s considered wardrobe for her Marilyn it not only fits her perfectly but is what artists call an ‘offset’ where you use the pure derivations of the colours from the palette you use. As such, it seems the colours of the world around Marilyn seem to swim out from this item of clothing making her the arresting central focus of the shot without overpowering it. All in all it is, as the saying goes, a feast for the eyes.

  • Outside the frame

Context and a bit of research reveal Monroe was already a massive star at this point after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and other roles but equally controversial after 20th century fox suspended her and her undoubted confrontational sexuality that pressed against the societal acceptance of the 50s. Monroe was, as she still is to this day, a divisive and intriguing character played out in front of the camera. What is so wonderful about this photo is that whilst it retains the bright glamour of gaudy hollywood, it incorporates a more homely, less showy image that was becoming more the norm of the period. More than this for me however is the unconscious ‘crack’ in it. On top of it being an expert actress acknowledging her role and performing perfectly and the master photographer at the top of her game employing considerable skill in capturing the moment it is the stripping of the veneer it creates that I love so much. Arnold speaks of a collaboration between the model and herself on any shoot so this was undoubtedly staged with great care but its the underlying nature of this that is so fascinating. Why that time of day? The light, obviously. Why the playground? She’s fun, childish, happy go lucky. Why the woods? Natural beauty, surely. Why the top? Fashionable and bright, like Marilyn. Why Ulysees? She had it in her car, it made her look clever, duh. I don’t buy it. Look at Eve’s other photos of Marilyn (there’s a link further up), a wholly more considered range is present. In all the other shots they lack one vital thing. Movement. I am 90% certain this was taken in haste and probably a chance shot. Consider these other shots from the same shoot. All are immaculately captured pictures that say almost the same thing. But there is too much going on in this photo. The background is not merely out of focus it has a slight hint of motion blur, as does Monroe’s hair and hand. Was the carousel turning? Had Arnold been fiddling for a while, allowing Monroe to take a back seat while Norma read her book? I am probably reading too much into the Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe duality but that’s because the photo presents such a exciting argument as to who the photo is of and who is reading this complex and challenging novel. And on top of all that its just So. Damn. Pretty.

In short, I’m a sucker for a curvy gorgeous woman reading an interesting book in a pretty top on a summer evening. This style of down-home, earthy, summer, nature-style portrait photography has very much become the norm for publicity shoots (mainly for electronics ads with a Nu-Folk soundtrack) these days and there’s even a couple of Instagram filters that do much the same thing (the ones I use the most, incidentally) so this photograph and its ilk are probably responsible for the ‘Pernicious Legacy’ I am wont to bang on about at length, but for me personally it is an absolute classic of photography, perfectly taken of a beautiful and interesting character in a magical frame. One of the best uses of celluloid I’ve ever seen. I can only dream of creating such a dream-like and incisive photo in the future.