Review: Moondust

2/5

In 1999, Andrew Smith was interviewing Charlie Duke, astronaut and moon walker, when he was interrupted. A fellow moon-walker had died, and now there were only nine of them left. Inspired and motivated by the fact that soon there would be none, Smith set out to track them down and talk to them about their experiences…

The first thing to note about this book is how much harder it would be to write today. Now, instead of nine, there are only four left (October 30, 2018). Soon there will be none, which is an astonishing thought: For three years, mankind sent people to the moon and then never bothered again.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts.

I know a fair bit about the Apollo program, but Smith throws facts and information into his mix that I wasn’t aware of. He develops relationships with some of the astronauts, and struggles with others. I was most fascinated by the two introverts – Neil Armstrong and John Young. Armstrong avoided all attempts at a face-to-face interview, but Young was stranger: He sat with Smith at a conference table, not opposite, but one chair offset, and gave his bare replies to the wall.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts, which I found amusing, since I am one and he’d presumably have as much trouble talking to me. He seems a pleasant enough fellow, but I wonder about his skill as an interviewer if he can’t get what he wants from his subject.

The most annoying thing about the book is Smith’s writing style. Here’s a sample of his compound, complex sentence structure:

“Houston would never win a beauty contest, but Bean’s neighbourhood on the edge of town is lovely, like a series of causeways cut through a friendly forest, saluted by all manner of towering, weeping trees, no one’s idea of Texas.”

…and he runs these throughout the book. Full stops, man. Use. Them.

Also, Smith drops references to the 1960s and assumes his audience is familiar with them. He talks about “Warhol’s Electric Circus” as though we know what he means. Some context would have been nice.

This is a book as much about Smith’s journey as the astronauts. He wonders why he feels motivated to do this project and shifts from controlling fathers to the astronauts as mirrors for ourselves.

At some point, he realises, the experience stopped being the astronauts and became our expectation of it. We all went to the moon, and we all came back with something different.

But we also all came back with the same thing: How fragile we really are.

A conversation

I work in a school, and I was sitting in the staff room the other Friday, reading Eleanor and Park, lost in my own world. There were two other people in the room with me when one of them started talking.

I watched their conversation for a while, listening to the rhythms and the sounds rather than the words. I tried to sketch it out as a graph, just for fun.

One person suddenly started talking into the silent staff room – loud enough to make me jump, hence the 9 on the vertical scale at the start. The second person answered at a lower tone of voice.

It was like listening to an abstract piece of jazz.

Then person one started talking about a TV show I don’t watch (“Did you watch The Apprentice last night?”), and they were off. That’s about 11 on the scale on the bottom. Their words intertwined, sometimes lower, sometimes higher. It was like listening to an abstract piece of jazz, full of counterpoints and sudden sounds. They both laughed at 21, by the way, a nice harmony.

It tailed off before suddenly restarting again at 25 (“Nick!”), then again at 30, when I went back to my book.

I don’t know how well these two know each other outside their respective school areas. But I found the interplay between them fascinating, and the way they seemed to become friends inside of a few minutes amazing.

Some people make that look so easy.

Travels: London, October 2018

In October 2018, Mrs T and I had the opportunity to visit London for two days. The focus of it was a concert by movie music maestro John Williams at The Royal Albert Hall, but that didn’t quite go as expected…

 

Thursday: The Cutty Sark and Greenwich

Yeah, that’s a lampshade.

Before we went anywhere, we found this left outside the hotel. I’d love to know the story behind it!

 

The Cutty Sark was a trading ship that brought back tea from China and wool from Australia in the 1870s. For a while, it was the fastest ship in the world.

There are a lot of museums around Greenwich, but it was too nice of a day to be indoors, so we just enjoyed the buildings and Greenwich park. It’s also the spot where the day begins and ends.

Right here on this line, to be exact!

 

Friday: Hampton Court Palace and The Royal Albert Hall

Hampton Court

Hampton court was the palace of Henry VIII – he actually got married in one of the rooms we walked through, which was amazing. And the place is enormous. Taken all together, the grounds are larger than the village where we live. We spent three hours there and only saw the palace. We shall return!

The Royal Albert Hall

The highest seats in the Hall.

John Williams composed the music for every Spielberg film with one or two exceptions. He also wrote the music for Superman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and the 60s TV show Lost in Space (he doesn’t talk about that one as much). And I was going to see him live and watch him perform. I’ve been a little overwhelmed thinking about that since I bought the tickets in February.

Unfortunately: Mr Williams was taken ill, and another composer took his place. It was still a kick ass concert though!

The Royal Albert Hall is an amazing space to be in, no matter where you sit. What a great trip!

Movies: The Fog (1980)

Dave and his friends really need to look after that conjunctivitis.
“To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.”

 

I’m not a fan of horror movies. I really don’t like gore or excessive violence in a horror film (or any other, for that matter: I tend to hit fast-forward if it goes on for too long). But there are two movies I love that are classed as “horror”.

One of them is John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the other is this one – The Fog from 1980, the second film Carpenter made after Halloween.

There’s no gore anywhere in the film. The six deaths all happen off screen. There’s not much budget. The Fog itself is a smoke machine pouring over the set. The undead inhabitants of The Fog aren’t seen except in brief moments, and then mostly as silhouettes and shapes.

In short: there’s nothing in this film that should make it any more than a tame B-Movie.

But here’s the genius of it: None of that matters. Carpenter takes what he has and ratchets up the tension and isolation of the characters until you’re locked into the movie and it carries you right to the (literal) killer of an ending.

There’s a haunting (that’s the best word for it) sense of utter emptiness that fills the landscape of the film. The movie feels post-apocalyptic, like these people are the last remnants of humanity, cut off from the world by the enveloping Fog. There’s no help for them coming anytime soon.

Our movie watching experiences tells us that California shouldn’t look like this.  Something is wrong about these solitary beaches and deserted skies and landscapes. They should be filled with beautiful people and happy sunbathers, but instead Carpenter fills the screen with emptiness and a sense of foreboding with his eerie soundtrack.

In one scene, the main character drives from her home to the lighthouse where she broadcasts her radio programme. There’s no dialogue but a radio announcer and a voice on a tape. There’s nothing but the keening sound of the wind and the empty, empty landscape. And always, always, the sea is there, almost seeming to watch and wait for the night and The Fog we know is coming.

In another, a young boy walks along a completely deserted beach. There’s nothing there but the sense of an ocean watching him and waiting for him. It is eerie and somehow unsettling, and it works wonderfully well.

It’s left to our imaginations that fill in the blanks of what’s going on, and that’s what works best for me in a horror film. Like The Woman in Black, it’s what we’re expecting that keeps us watching for The Fog to come rolling towards us.

So rent it for Halloween, turn the lights down low, curl up under a blanket and wait for midnight…

…and if you hear an odd knocking at your door…probably best not to answer it.

The face of my father

Mr Craig

That is, in case you didn’t know, the actor Daniel Craig. I’d seen him interviewed and seen every Bond film he’s been in before I suddenly realised something: How much he looks like my dad.

My dad has been dead since 1998, so perhaps it’s not surprising I’d see echoes of his face somewhere. But sometimes there’s a merry dancing light in Mr Craig’s eyes when he’s being interviewed that reminds me of him as well.

It seems to me he’s having the time of his life, and that’s one of the best memories I have of my dad: He nearly always had that same light in his eyes. An innate belief that life was fun and not to be taken too seriously.

And there’s a physical resemblance that always startles me and makes me look twice to make sure it’s not really my dad being interviewed.

My dad had a very primitive rhinoplasty when he was a child (He was born in 1933), and the cartilage in his nose was removed. As a result, he could push his nose completely flat, which is utterly captivating when you’re a kid (or grand-kid).

There’s a distinctive shape of the mouth and the nose there with Mr Craig and my dad, and those odd little thick lines at the edges of his cheeks. The squareness of the face. The size of the ears.

But it’s in the eyes I see it the most. The angle of the eyebrows and the brow ridge, and that happy light. Even my dad’s hair was parted the same, until it was shaved to look for the tumour that eventually killed him.

This is the only picture I have of my dad; all my others are lost, so I don’t have any later than a fading print from 1979. So you’ll have to take my word for it how much they look alike to me – this one doesn’t really do the comparison justice.

Or maybe that’s my brain filling in blanks that don’t exist. Either way, I always have to look twice.

 

Mr Talbot

Dennis Talbot (1933 – 1998)

(As a side note, I’m the same age writing this as my dad was when this was taken: 46.)

Movies: Suffragette (2015)

“What you gonna do? Lock us all up? We’re in every home, we’re half the human race, you can’t stop us all.”

 

Do you know what I studied in school? Triangles. Lots and lots of triangles. Angles, cosines, tangents. Right angled and isosceles. Squares and rectangles too, and oh my god, the endless circles!

Never used diddly of it, to be honest. The same with the volume of a cylinder and all that sum-of-the-square-on-the-two-side stuff.

You know what I didn’t study? Women in history. I did nothing on Suffragettes. Not a day or even a lesson on them. I didn’t know any of their names, I didn’t know what they were fighting for. I didn’t even know they were fighting. I didn’t know they wore white (That goes for all women, not just suffragettes: I’d never heard of Lisa Meitner until this year either).

I found out later – vaguely – that there was a woman named Pankhurst. And another woman threw herself under a horse once. Something called “The Cat and Mouse Act”. That was it.

So where does Suffragette come in to this?

In a 106 minute blast, I learned more about these women and what their lives were like than I learned in ten years of education. How they were regarded as too stupid to vote, how their rights were non-existent in the workplace, in the home, in society. A whole section of society weren’t even counted on the ten-year census.

In one scene, the women are protesting legally outside the Houses of Parliament. Brutally, the police move in to break the protest up. I thought they made that scene up, but no….that did happen. On the orders of the Home Secretary, one Winston Churchill, no less. (For a more in depth look at Churchill’s complex relationship with suffrage: https://tinyurl.com/y8mtcacu).

The men in this world are for the most part, useless (and of course antagonistic), but it’s not their story anyway. The main character leaves her husband and son behind, the husband complaining that he can’t look after their child and work at the same time…even though he expects her to. In a heart-breaking scene, he actually sells their son to another family because he can’t manage.

A woman is introduced named Emily Davison. If I’d studied anything about women in history, I would have known her fate instantly. I would probably know her face and when she was born. But I knew nothing about her until she threw herself under the Kings horse.

As a comparison, if the name of a character in a movie set in World War Two was “Robert Oppenheimer” I would have known where they were going with it from the first introduction.

Poster by ‘A Patriot’, showing a suffragette prisoner being force-fed, 1910. A doctor pours liquid food down a tube which has been stuffed up the struggling suffragette’s nose, while prison officers hold her down and tie her legs to the chair.  (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The movie doesn’t pull any punches in its brutal treatment of these women, and nor should it. Women are arrested and stripped, and one is force fed through the nose, which is as horrific as it sounds and as bad it looks in that poster.

Women go through workplace abuse, societal abuse and home abuse (I wish they were all restricted to the past!) to fight for the right to be considered human beings.

You know what I studied in school? The wrong damn things.

Review: Dolores Claiborne

4/5

Accused of a crime she didn’t commit, Dolores Claiborne sits down with the sheriff of her little island community and tells him what happened. And to explain that, she has to tell him why she murdered her husband thirty years before…

I’ve said it before in my review of The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, but I’ll repeat it here: King does his best work when it’s him and a few other characters. Never mind his sprawling epics with a hundred people like IT and Under the Dome.

He works best when he can dig into a character and scoop them out, when it’s just the two of them locked together. For me, that’s why his short stories are things I read and re-read.

And boy, does he do it well with Dolores. Right from the first line, you’re pulled into this woman’s head and taken along with her as she talks her way through the story. The style is an uninterrupted narrative without chapter breaks or section breaks, a recording of her conversation with the local sheriff.

And it’s only her talking. We get snippets like this:

What’s that, Andy? Yeah, that’s what I said, weren’t you listenin to me first time?

But mostly we listen to her voice and her accent and her life and we’re carried away with it. There’s nothing flat here; this feels like a real woman talking and telling her life story, and it’s captivating. The hard choices she makes, the hard life she leads with a drunken and abusive husband and the hard and (very rich) woman she works for, Vera.

There are moments of black comedy as Vera and Dolores try and outsmart each other. Vera is bed-bound, and out of meanness or just boredom, tries to avoid bed-pan duty. Dolores counters, and Vera counters back. It’s two very smart and very tough women playing speed chess with a bedpan. It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t make you laugh and yet it does.

Then there are moments of great empathy as well. Vera is losing her mind, and Dolores would often climb into bed with her and hold her until she slept when the nightmares came. Dolores feels the emptiness of the giant house where they live and needs the warmth of another human as much as Vera, it seems.

In many ways, their relationship reminded me of the two women in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? They’re tied together in love and hate because they have nothing else. Their husbands are dead and their children are gone. All they have is each other, and that’s better than nothing.

I discovered that this is related to another book, Gerald’s Game, but I haven’t read that and didn’t feel like I missed anything.

The only reason this drops a star is that King seems to run out of steam a little after the death of Dolores’s husband. Not a sense of ticking boxes, but there’s a sense of wrapping up the few loose ends and finishing off, and the narrative seems to lose a little power.

One of my top five Kings, and one I shall be returning to.

And one final note: I’m not one for audio books, but I bet this is a kick-ass one.

I am what I am

I remember one New Year’s Eve party in particular. My dad was in the Territorial Army (An army reserve he went to on weekends) for most of his life that I was a part of. This was a NYE party they were holding in their big hall in their barracks, and the whole family were there, plus about a hundred other people. Lots of food and a disco – you know the deal, right? It must have been perhaps 1982 or 1983; that’s the best date I can put on it, anyway, and the year doesn’t really matter.

The reason it doesn’t matter is because here’s the thing I remember the most about that year-going-into-the-next, the thing I’m here to talk about: I spent the seconds across midnight in the empty and mostly dark gym that looked over the hall. On an exercise bike. Alone.
I was more comfortable up there than down on that floor singing Auld Lang’s Syne with a bunch of people I didn’t know. I was more comfortable in a dark room than taking part in the fun down there below me.

Does that seem strange to you?

Parties, you see, even ones where I know people, aren’t my thing. Even small ones at some-friends-my-parents-knew house, with ten people there. I’m just here for the food thanks, please don’t talk to me.
Neither are wedding receptions; park me next to the buffet and leave me alone, please. Neither are meetings where you have to talk or contribute (You know…most of them). Neither are being parts of a team and networking, something my work friend likes doing constantly. He likes talking to people you see. Mostly, I probably come across as rude and indifferent; mostly I only talk when I have to.

Social situations of any sort are exhausting to me, and I want to get out of them as quickly as possible. Stay and make small talk? No thanks. Office parties? Never been to one; never want to go to one. If someone invited me to one, I would decline.

What always puzzled me was how many people think this was (and is) a deliberate choice on my part. How many teachers would write in my school reports “Tony needs to get more involved and speak up more” as though it was as easy as changing socks.

There seem to be a lot of people who want to cure me of the way I am by “getting me involved”; not to draw too many parallels, but I see the way introverts are treated in much the same way as homophobia: “Have you tried not being quiet?” Well…have you tried not being noisy?

I always ate my lunch alone when I was in college, and never in the canteen (eating in public is something I avoided for years), hunting out the quietest corner I could find if it was too cold to eat outside – and you’d be surprised at how high that outside-eating bar could be raised. I’d eat with freezing fingers on a park bench and only move inside if it rained. If I had a free lesson, I’d go for a walk rather than socialise.

If you’re curious about how I was able to make any friends with all this static, believe me it wasn’t easy. So I tend to keep the ones I made, and if they vanished, I didn’t make many new ones.
And if you want to know what it was like being a teenager in a world like mine, go read Black Shark, my short story. A friend read it and commented, ” I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with the level of anxiety that the main character experiences.” Well, yeah…you kinda have, albeit virtually. ;-). (This isn’t a plug for the story, by the way)

So I thought there was something wrong with me for not enjoying being at a loud disco or nightclub. I used to think it was only me who had this odd affliction for not wanting – not needing – to be around people, but I discovered only recently that there are many people out there who are like me. They very rarely get together, you see – as you can imagine, the annual meeting of the Socially Anxious and Introverted doesn’t get many people turn up, and when they do, it’s a quiet affair.

Growing up, of course, forces you out of your shell whether you like it or not. For the most part, that is. But I will always be on the edge of the crowd and looking in. I will always be the last person to speak up, and certainly not voluntarily.This drives my wife a little mad at times. She’d love to go out dancing at a nightclub. I’d love to sit in the car and wait for her to come out. Or I’ll sit at a table all night and be uncomfortable, thanks. You go have a good time and try not to drag me to the dance floor. Please.

I’d rather not have anything to eat than have to order it myself, and she’ll do it for me if we’re in Starbucks. I’d rather not go into the chip-shop and order if she’s willing to do it for me.
Don’t get me wrong (and don’t call me lazy) – I can do these things if I have to. But I don’t enjoy doing them. I don’t relish going into a shop and making small talk with the girl behind the till or the chip-shop owner. I don’t enjoy crowds. I don’t like people’s leaving parties at work and meetings are to be dreaded and sat through like a dental appointment.

And you know what it’s taken me a long time to realise? It’s the way I am, and the way I’m made. And I’m good with that.

Finally, after all the years of people saying there was something wrong with me standing on the edge and looking in: I’m good with that.

I am what I am.