I love a good apocalypse, don’t you? But because they can sometimes be a bit harrowing I’ve rated them with some 50-shades style safe words:
Green: painful – but with a happy ending!
Yellow: approaching my pain threshold….
Red: make it stop!!!! Don’t read these if you’re feeling a bit fragile.
1 The Stand by Stephen King
‘Epic’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot, but at a whopping 823 pages, this really is a massive book. To get some perspective on that, The Goldfinch is only 784 pages. In this novel, a weaponized flu virus – nicknamed ‘Captain Trips’ – is accidentally released from a military research facility. It kills 99.4% of the world’s population in a fortnight. Then the Satanic Randall Flagg appears, walking down a dusty road in his cowboy boots, calling all the evil people to join him in – where else? – Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the holy mother Abigail brings all the good people together in Colorado, and the stage is set for humanity’s last stand. What I love about this book is the huge variety of characters from all walks of life, and how convincing they are as people. A pregnant teenager, a one-hit wonder rockstar on the run from an angry drug dealer, a deaf man beaten up and anxiously waiting to face his tormenters, unemployed loafers hanging out at the petrol station in small-town Texas, two criminals on a mad killing spree… All their problems look a bit silly after Captain Trips. What I didn’t like was the silly ending and that Mother Abigail is another of King’s awful ‘magic Negro’ figures. Oh Stephen!! Apparently there’s going to be a film version starring Matthew McConaughey as a heroic Texan. This is a travesty: I imaged the character much older and more normal-looking. I’ll still watch it though.
Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is inescapable. For some, its the ultimate chance to treat your loved one, to kindle or re-kindle romance. For others, it’s a tacky, over-commercialised, over-priced, inauthentic display, making a mockery of true love. For some its even worse – a painful reminder of their single status.
Where did this festival of romance originate? Valentines day’s roots are obscure, and stretch back into the mythic past. There are several Saint Valentines, but none of them has an obvious connection with romantic love. Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ notes that birds choose their mate on Saint Valentines day. As birds do not mate until the spring, some have suggested that the romantic St Valentine’s day might have been celebrated in March or April in the medieval period. Continue reading →
I know its a bit late to be reviewing 2014, but I’ve only just got round to it… Here are some interesting books I read last year.
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
Relates the history of North Korea, especially the famine of the 1990s, as told to the journalist by defectors who managed to flee to the west. The book carefully avoids descending into a kind of pornography of horror, and dwells instead on the subtler, psychological side of surviving traumatic times. I was sort of pleased to learn that as a not very tall woman aged between 30 and 50, I would probably be amongst the last survivors of a famine. But only sort of. Continue reading →
Everyone loves a good fight, right? But how did the Victorians do it? Predictably, they turned good old-fashioned bare knuckle prize-fighting into the proper sport of boxing, with the introduction of the Queensberry rules. Less predictably, they loved female fighters and invented their own wacky martial art called Bartitsu.
The Victorians invented most of our most cherished Christmas traditions, but what was Christmas like for those excluded from these family-centred rituals, banished to workhouses, asylums and prisons? You can find out in my piece on Victorian Christmasses behind locked doors inDiscover Your Ancestors magazine.
I love a mince pie, but they are a bit weird, aren’t they? I’ve often wondered just why we eat such strange things at Christmas – and now I’ve found out why!
Back in Ye Olde medieval times, everyone loved a pie. But I’m not talking about your regular pasty from Greggs. I’m talking about some serious pie-age. Meat pies could be stuffed with pretty much anything – beef, pork, game, poultry, offal, four and twenty blackbirds…. Pies were often very elaborate in appearance, designed to be the centrepieces of a banqueting table. Most were savoury, but some were seasoned with honey, or contained dried fruit, fresh fruit or Seville orange juice, for a sweet and sour taste. Meat is still often served with fruit – like cranberry sauce – so it’s not such an odd idea.
In case you hadn’t noticed, some kind of global conflict thing started 100 years ago. The Tower of London’s moat became a beautiful sea of ceramic poppies to commemorate British soldiers who died during the First World War. The Imperial War Museum re-opened its revamped galleries to much fanfare. Then the government decided to slash the museum’s funding by £4 million! The museum will absorb these cuts by closing its library, slashing or shutting down education services, and cutting jobs. So now we can see exactly how our government really feel about this important aspect of our history. It’s all right for people to enjoy art installations, as long as they don’t start actually, you know, learning anything, doing any research, or finding things out for themselves. Heritage is lovely – as long as we don’t have to pay for it, and everyone involved is a volunteer. This is a shocking scandal. Yes I know we could spend our money on far more worthy things than heritage, blah blah, but it’s the sheer hypocrisy of the thing that makes my blood boil. If you feel as strongly outraged as I do, please sign this petition to prevent the funding cuts. Please also publicise this, and urge others to sign the petition.
Because Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a Victorian novella turned into a musical featuring jolly brightly coloured puppets, would it? Christmas also wouldn’t be Christmas if Dickens hadn’t more or less invented it. He decided it was a family time, mainly about giving presents to children and feeling vaguely charitable, and that we should all eat a specific meal. And we’ve carried on like that ever since. That’s even freakier than Michael Caine’s singing, eh? Continue reading →
Funerals aren’t what they used to be. Twenty-first century funerals have sealed coffins, pop songs – Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ are two of the most popular – and a ‘celebration of life’. You might be instructed to wear colourful clothes instead of black. One of the strangest ‘celebrations of life’ I’ve ever been to was a fancy-dress wake in an incredibly classy beach house. Drunk Mexican wrestlers and Che Guevaras were clutching each other and crying on the cream leather sofas.