Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Two weeks to go

In a fortnight's time I will be sitting on a plane, on my way to Athens.

I've planned my route and booked almost all my accommodation, and I've sorted out a lot of information on things like bus routes and ferry schedules.  I've treated myself to a better camera than the toy one I've been using for the last couple of years, and a new sketchbook.  I'm a bit nervous, now the time is getting close.  I'm also very excited.

I am at something of a crossroads in my life.  I’ve been made redundant, I’ve recently been diagnosed with a life-long and serious medical condition; things I'd been certain of have changed irrevocably.  Suddenly my life has been reshaped, and perforce also seems shorter and more prescribed (and indeed proscribed, too) than I ever imagined it would be.  On top of that, in December of this year I will turn fifty.   

I may never have another opportunity as good as this to set aside the demands of regular wage-earning, and the expected cautious behaviour of the middle-aged, and risk doing something that excites me and me alone.  And with my age and my altered health in mind, the idea of travelling alone, trying to fulfil a challenging project, becomes a kind of mid-life rite-of-passage.  

Can I still do something like this at all?  Am I going to be okay, setting off on this daft month of travelling as if I were still 23?

And then that question prompts a deeper one in me, of whether I'll be able to face the next stage in my life with a spirit of hope and adventure, or have to accept lowered hopes and narrowed horizons from now on. 

I want to find out again who I am and what makes my life feel worthwhile.  I want to prove to myself that I can still meet a challenge, instead of running away from it and hiding.

The chances are that I am now getting on for 2/3 of the way through my time on this earth.  I do not want my remaining years to be lived with the shutters drawn. 

Since the Greek government has now quit and called elections for mid-September, I'm going to be travelling during the last stage of the election campaign, and into its aftermath.  The BBC are suggesting that polling day will be the 20th, when I'm expecting to be staying on Poros, one of the islands of the Saronic Gulf.  So that will be an interesting additional thing going on.

So, I’m going on a pilgrimage, at a time of flux in my life, to visit a country also in flux.  I first visited Greece 26 years ago, and so much has changed here in that time.  The country had just joined the EU when I first went there, and has now come close to leaving it again.  When I travelled across Greece in 1989, the drachma was still the currency, and the years of dictatorship weren't much more than a decade in the past.  And it was quite an old-school place in someways.  One could get on a local bus and still find someone in the next seat carrying a pair of live chickens tied together at the feet.  It was still quite common to see elderly people wearing elements of traditional regional costume as their daily wear.  I remember it as an extraordinary shift in atmosphere and pace, after the very deliberate and self-conscious style of Italy.

A lot has changed since then.  Now my beloved Hellas is again in a time of transition, struggling with enormous problems, facing frustration and loss.  It would be crass for me to pretend that I, as an outsider, have any useful insight to offer on the situation of a people struggling to survive and a country rendered desperately poor by a huge complex mess of problems.  All I can speak of is my own experience, as a philhellene, trying to come to terms with my own personal problems and looking around me at larger problems, and at lives affected more drastically, and with less hope of rescue or safety.  I hope so much for things to begin to straighten out for them.

Well, when I get there, I'll see what I find.  For now, I have the remainder of my planning to do, and there are just two weeks left to do it in.  Much of which is already committed to other things (seeing friends, visiting my Mum, doctor's appointments and so on).  So I really do need to get on now.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Recent films I have seen; or, cultural relativism at the flicks...

I've seen several films for the first time lately and looking back I feel they contrasted rather well with one another.  Two were on dvd and three were at the cinema.

They were all, in different ways, very professionally done; slick, highly commercial pieces of work; and they were object lessons in how to do commercial cinema well, and how not to.  At least for my money.

First up was Marvel's "Ant-man".  When I saw a trailer for this, a few months ago, I thought it looked pretty cheesy.  Even the special effects (which after all would of necessity be central to the storytelling) looked poor.  I only agreed to go because my friend Dip the Dipterist wanted to see it (because ants).  In the end Dip wasn't feeling very well and I went on my own; and, guess what? - I loved it.

I gather it has aspects that can be considered highly problematic if you are a fan of the comics on which it's based; in particular, there's a blatant case of fridging of a (of course) female character in order to explain a male character being a prick; and the only black characters are treated as primarily comic relief, despite the fact they are integral to the plot and come up trumps when the shit hits the fan.

But it did have some pluses to compensate for that.  We have an age-appropriate actress playing the female lead, instead of a girl of 20 pretending to be 35 because Hollywood doesn't believe anyone can bear the sight of a woman with a few tiny creases at the corners of her eyes when she smiles.  We have a non-hunk hero.  We have a step-father figure for the hero's child, who isn't a plot device and who acts with exemplary good sense throughout - and doesn't get bumped-off, humiliated or otherwise shelved at the end.  The aforementioned female lead is angry because she has bloody good reason to be, not because she's stuck in a delayed adolescent rebellion - the second film I've seen this year (after "Mad Max; Fury Road") that accepts the idea that women are entitled to be angry if they are treated shittily.  Plus, the special effects are actually fine, and I gather that the ants are pretty accurate from a biology point of view.

And it's good fun.  Where recent Marvel films have been getting pretty dark and bleak, this returns suddenly to the warmth and lightness of spirit of "Guardians of the Galaxy".  Darkness and sadness may be more realistic, but sometimes that fairytale of happy endings for the good-of-heart is an incredible relief.

The next thing I watched was a dvd my mother lent me; "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."  I came to this with really seriously low expectations, having been terribly disappointed by the first two Hobbit films (bloated, messy, self-indulgent and poorly-scripted).  It was even worse than I feared; which is almost an achievement.  If you felt the first two were bloated, messy, etc, this one is far, far more so.

It's such a shame.  Martin Freeman is a tremendous Bilbo, and most of the rest of the cast are also good-to-excellent (with the exception of a few bits of stupid stunt casting).  It all looks great.  But the padding-out of the plot is ludicrous, there's a pointless romantic sub-plot shoe-horned in for Kili (or was it Fili? - I never could tell them apart - handsome Aidan Turner rather than the other slightly-gormless chap), and on the rare occasions when the dialogue is the original Tolkien rather than invented new stuff, it sticks out like real butter in a plate of bread-and marg, because it suddenly has the ring of Middle Earth in every word, instead of the ring of modern English in pretentious vintage clothes.  Please excuse the bad mixed metaphor there.

With the exception of those few lines of real Tolkien, about the only good thing you can say about the script is that they had just enough nerve not to bottle-out of killing Thorin, Fili and Kili.

Oh well, never mind.  Glad I hadn't forked out to see that in the cinema, though.

Forking out for films is a thing of the past for the next twelve months, anyway, since I've just joined the Cineworld Unlimited scheme.  And my next two movies were both seen on my new Unlimited card.

"Jurassic World" does exactly what it says on the tin.  Fabulous special effects, loads of smashing dinosaurs smashing stuff smashingly, and Chris Pratt on a motorbike.  Oh, and the T Rex gets to win the day and save the day (well, kind-of); the closing shot is his triumphant roar over his regained kingdom.  I suspect the science is wince-making if you know anything about genetics.  But for an enjoyable evening at the flicks, with a straightforwardly exciting plot and a few squeal-moments, this would take some beating.  Ever so much fun.

That was followed by the new Mission Impossible film, "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation".  It's a silly title, but nobody's perfect.  This also did exactly what it should; daft plot, stupidly great stunts, terrific action sequences, lots of Simon Pegg, and the good guys win in the end.  There's a tremendous sequence filmed in the Viennastaatsoper and set to a soundtrack of long chunks of "Turandot", which I'm pretty sure came in the right order and were sung by real singers.  Even in a franchise famous for its exciting theme tune, a slab of full-on Puccini adds instant drama.

There wasn't enough Agent Brandt (but then I would say that, wouldn't I?!) and though he was pleasantly sarcastic and wry in what screen-time he did get, he didn't have much real action; someone seems to have decided to relegate the character to a desk job.  Doesn't seem fair, if you ask me.  On the other hand, we got the first really interesting heroine the MI films have given us; Rebecca Ferguson's bold and capable Ilsa Faust.  Who had agency and motivation, wasn't used as a love-interest, saved the day repeatedly and was generally utterly cool.  Ms Ferguson is also stunningly beautiful, incidentally; but with the beauty of an athlete rather than a supermodel.  Douze points for the MI series for that.

And finally, the second film I saw on dvd; "Les Miserables".  Oh dear.

Unlike the Hobbit, I was really looking forward to this.  It's taken from one of the most famous and succesful modern stage musicals.  It had rave reviews and rave word-of-mouth.  It was praised as "sheer heaven" and seemed to satisfy everyone from the most arty to the most populist of critics.  It had a great cast.  Where could it possibly go wrong?

Okay; the cast are indeed mostly great, though I remain mystified by the attraction of Eddie Redmayne.  Ann Hathaway deserved her Oscar; she's heart-rendingly good and doesn't milk a role that could have been one solid wallow of self-indulgence.  And it looks really good (with the exception of the blank Mr Redmayne); the sets and costumes are uniformly splendid.  I did get a bit tired of all the tight close-ups of singing people with their mouths open showing off their theatrically-blackened teeth, but that's a minor detail.

But for my money there's one big problem with "Les Mis"; the music is rubbish.

If someone wanted to write an opera, but didn't know how, and was too self-confident to ask for help, but also couldn't bear to just not do it, this is the kind of thing they might write.  It's sung-through, but most of the time the vocal lines cling nervously to a tiny range of safe notes; and the orchestration is almost all solid movie-score string-heavy stodge.  There are a couple of Big Numbers, with actual outright melodies.  There are a few of what one might call Small Numbers, with a bit of melody, carefully confined within that safe-note zone.  And there is tons, and tons, and tons, of recitative.  Extremely dull recitative.  They all chunter on and on, up and down on two notes, for hour after hour.  Even one of the supposed Big Numbers is actually almost all sung on just two notes.

It's some of the most boring music I've heard in years.  Pity, that.  Seeing it a few days after "MI:RN" with all that Puccini only served to emphasise how dull and flat and tumty-tum-y it was.

Well, as I said at the start of this post, they were all commercial films.  But I find it interesting that the one which was nearest to being considered Serious Cinema, which was most praised, and least mainstream in subject, which was un-pop enough to please even "serious" critics, was for my money the most disappointing.  "Les Mis" had major pretentions to be Real Art; but it was fundamentally dull, and most of the big "emotional" moments left me feeling cheaply manipulated.  "Ant-man", "Jurassic World" and "MI:RN" all of them made no great claims to be art, and no great claims to have the right to make us cry.  They set out to entertain and thrill, and they achieved it.  Two of them even managed to slip in a tiny amount of genre subversion (okay, maybe 15% subversion maximum; but that's still more than one expects).  And they were highly enjoyable when the would-be Serious Real Art was basically not.

I can't really draw any profound conclusions from this; except to say, I am not ashamed of my eclectic tastes, or of liking things that are "low" culture and not liking something that is "high" culture (or at least, in cultural snobbery terms, very much higher than Mission Impossible).  I like what I like and that's all there is to it.

Monday, 10 August 2015

...if not quite to square one...

I've been writing on and off about this plan to go travelling in Greece this coming September, taking my lead from Pausanias and visiting places he writes about to draw or paint them as they are today.  I just made a list of the places I'd like to visit, that seem moderately reachable (& in some cases, that have been identified with reasonable certainty - not every ancient site is as confidently known as Mycenae, say). 

That is to say, a list of sites in Athens, Attica, Boiotia, Phokis, and Corinth and the Argolid.  I had already accepted I'd need to forget about the whole of Etolia-Akarnania and the whole of the rest of the Peloponnese - Achaia and Elis, Arkadia, Messinia and Lakonia - until another trip.  But I'd an idea I could cover the rest in one month.

It came to 54 sites.  Oh bugger.

Allowing one day per site, plus several travelling days to move between regions and between regional bases, that would mean around 60 days' worth of touring.  And that's without allowing myself so much as a single day to forget being intelligent and cultured, and just go and lie on a beach or sit under a pine tree by the sea and enjoy the view. 

I don't think I'm up for 60 days solid of history without a break.  It could start to feel like a chore instead of an adventure.  And on top of that, my travel insurance only covers me for a maximum of 31 days.
So I need to rethink my plans.  It's back to square one; or at least, back several squares.  This is why planning is so important!  I need to book my plane tickets fairly soon, and at least some of my accommodation.  So I need to have this planning stage sorted out.  Which means I do need a clear itinerary.

So, I must narrow my focus.  Do I start in Athens and then head for Corinth and the Argolid?  Or do I start in Athens and then head west through Boiotia and into Phokis?

I would dearly love to see Delphi again.  But the Argolid is so packed with things worth seeing; and I've only ever paid the most sketchy visit to Corinth, and I've never climbed the Acrocorinth, or been to Isthmia or Sikyon...  Yes, on balance I'm starting to think the logical way to limit myself is to take just that little corner.  A few days in Athens to start with, then cross the Isthmus and base myself in Argos or Nafplio for the remainder of the time.  Then back to Athens in early October for a last day or two, and home.

I can have a city break in Athens in November, maybe. Or at my birthday. 

I can do another region in the spring.

I don't want to skimp, that's the thing.  When I went to Greece for the first time, I skimped.  I knew there wasn't time to see everything, and I knew I'd never be happy just doing the main "circuit" and ticking those famous boxes; Mycenae, check, Epidaurus, check, Parthenon, check.  I tried to fit in more, in the areas I'd picked out; and I still ended up skimping and leaving out places that sounded interesting. 

The problem is, almost anywhere can be intersting, if you look at it the right way.  The world is so full of fascination, the moment you start to go beyond the obvious.  There's always so much more to see.

For example, I don't want to miss out Boiotia altogether this time.  Twenty-six years ago, I went straight through the whole of Boiotia and eastern Phokis on a bus (in the pouring rain!) to Delphi, and ended up staying there for over a week because there was so much to do and see.  I spent three days "doing" the site of Delphi itself, then I went to Amphissa, to Arahova, and to Itea twice (admittedly the second of those days was in order to spend a day at the beach) and I had an amazing day hiking up into the foothills of Mount Parnassos. And I wasn't stopping to draw, then; I was just seeing the sights and taking it all in.

I want to do things differently; properly.  If a job's worth doing, it'sworth doing well,as my late father liked to say.  If that means concentrating more carefully on a smaller area, well, okay, let's re-do the plan and do it that way.

Though maybe I'll tuck in a quick pilgrimage to Delphi, right at the end of the trip.  It was a magical place. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Strange thoughts and the taking of plunges

It's a strange state.  I have a lot going on, and yet none of it is really going on yet; it's all planning and sorting out, and wondering, and decision-making.  I feel a bit in limbo.

I was bound to feel in limbo in the circumstances.  I mustn't let it get to me, that would just be plain silly.

I've got two major writing projects nearing completion at the moment.  "If you're interested..." is (there's no way to sugar-coat this) pure smut.  It's actually gone quite well, though, and I've had some good feedback on it so far from dedicated smut-readers (i.e. smutty-fan-fic-readers).  But it is original fiction, not fan-fic.  It's too short to count as a novel; it currently stands at about 26,000 words with maybe another 5000 to go.  Snce erotica is no longer quite the shameful secret it once was, particularly in online publishing, I'm thinking of e-publishing this as a free-standing erotic novella.  I can draw the cover image myself (one of the protagonists is an artist, so a drawing is highly appropriate).  I'm seriously thinking this might be the one to take the plunge with.  Sooner or later I'm going to have to e-publish something.  At least I know erotic fiction has an existing readership.

Then I've also been working for over a year now on a long project, with the working title "The Healers".  More filth, I'm afraid, but in this case the sex scenes are part of a real narrative; a fantasy slightly-alternative-universe Western, set in 1880s Kansas and Missouri. 

I'd had the basic premise on my mental back burner for about fifteen years; but it didn't take off until I got a clearer picture of my male protagonist.  Once he had appeared in (out of?) my head, as well as the female lead, who had always been there, things finally got going.  It's written from the man's point of view, which isn't something I'd ever felt up to trying before.  I'm not sure how well he stands up as a male pov, but it's been a thoroughly enjoyable challenge writing him.

This is now a fairly mammoth piece of work, though; currently at some 130,000 words and not yet finished.  I think it's going to be easily 140,000 before I can wrap it up, and possibly more. 

There are a couple of scenes that got left out, earlier on, in an attempt to shorten the story when I realised how long it was getting.  And there's a subsidiary character who gets very short shrift, who I would have liked to develop more.  It could easily grow to 150,000 words if I let myself expand his elements of the story, and insert the scenes I've cut.

So I'm starting to think, maybe I should split this into two regular-sized novels on the 70 - 80,000 word scale.  And then, since this is also original fiction, maybe they can go the e-publishing route as well.

If I do that, the first one will be called "The Healer" and the second one possibly "The Southern boy".

I do need to do a few other things with regard to this publishing project.  I need to find out how to self-publish online, and sort out if there are any skills involved that I don't have (e.g. I'm hoping you don't need to do any HTML!).  I need to get those cover images done, I need to get them scanned, and I need to see if I can lay them out easily as cover designs myself (or find someone else to, someone who knows what they're doing but will accept only getting a small fee for the commission because I can't afford to pay much). 

Then, I need to revise and proof-read my manuscripts to within an inch of their lives. 

I also need to decide if I risk publishing under my own name, or find a pseudonym. 

And, of course, I  need to actually do it!  After all, there does come a point when all the preparing and polishing can slip into procrastination.  I'm not at that point yet, I know; both of the stories are unfinished, covers undrawn, technical know-how unlearnt.  But that doesn't mean the procrastination point doesn't exist.  I need to be alert to whether I've hit it yet.

At the moment I'm at an earlier procrastination point, where one looks at everything still to be done and gets nervous, and ends up not doing any of it.  This is really not a good idea (understatement) and is something I need to beat.  Example; I have just cleaned the bathroom this morning, not a favourite job by any means, instead of writing.  Bah!  I love writing; but it's a torment sometimes as well.  And I am a chicken sometimes.

On top of this, there's the September project.  Running away with Pausanias.  I need to decide whether to do that in this blog, or set up a new blog for it; if I choose the latter, I need to set that new one up and have it all ready to go.  I need to get a camera with which I can take decent close-up pictures that are in proper sharp focus.  I need to know if I'll be taking this laptop (Tinkerbell) or whether the larger and more comfortable, but heavier, Frankentop is coming back anytime soon. 

I need to decide where I am going, and plan my routes.  I need to sort out all the practicalities.  It's quite a big thing to be planning, after all; a whole month abroad. 

At the moment, it looks as though I could get a pretty good price on daytime flights from Heathrow to Athens with Aegean Airways if I book soon.  I've never flown with them, but all I ask of an airline is to get my and my luggage to my destination; I don't mind if it isn't in luxury!  So I need to pick my dates and commit to that, fairly soon. 

Once that's done, I will have passed the point of no return.  Which is another strange thought.  I've always been a fairly risk-averse person and now I'm planning to do something that excites me but is also risky.  I'm looking some of my fears in the face.  It's okay, I know I can do it; but it still feels strange.  I realise with sadness that I've spent much of my life not facing these particular fears because I've had a good solid excuse not to do so.  The excuse is gone, for now at least.  I can no longer say "I don't have the time" or "I've no money".  I need to walk my talk. 

So I have a lot of stuff to do, and several quite significant plunges to take.