This weekend marked my first ever ‘stag do’ attendance. I can’t work out if this is unusual for a 27-year old – I’m aware that many people with whom I went to school but no longer keep contact are married, so do I move in particularly commitment-phobic circles or are those settled former acquaintances themselves unusual?
Whatever the answer to that particular riddle, Saturday was a bloody good day. The fashion these days might tend towards ever more elaborate (and expensive) celebrations – much to the delight of best men everywhere, I’m sure – but as an excuse for a group of friends and family to spend the day with the groom-to-be and do something different, it’s difficult to argue with the concept.
I must admit to having found it a little uncomfortable saying that I was “going on a stag do”. The kind of images that phrase can conjure up do not befit the way I like to spend my time, and they certainly don’t befit the mood of the day. It got me wondering if tradition is all it’s cracked up to be and, more precisely, whether it’s entirely necessary to stick with ‘stag’. Personally, I prefer the rather more elegant-sounding ‘elk’, if we are at least going to continue using deer-related names…
Saturday morning was spent doing a variety of activities, namely driving a pick-up while blindfolded (with a navigator in the back banned from using the words ‘left’ and ‘right’), time-trialling a Honda Pilot buggy round a short circuit, and attempting to disintegrate clay pigeons with the help of a shotgun. The afternoon was spent toiling against a slightly larger and significantly more ‘enthusiastic’ group in five games of paintball, one of which we actually managed to win.
For the evening, we went for a curry and a few drinks. The best men (for in the case of this wedding, there are two assigned to the task) arranged a theme for the night, cladding the main man in a white dress uniform ala Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ from Top Gun. The rest of us donned crisp shirts with US air force badges and our very own nicknames from the film, and from thereon had to refrain from calling each other by proper names.
While city centre bars and clubs are not my natural stomping ground (that cliché being a good nomination for ‘understatement of the year’…), the most enjoyable aspect of the night was that we weren’t out to seek attention. There was nothing ostentatious or outrageous, just a group of us helping a friend have a good night. One or two people noticed, maybe passed comment or made a friendly joke, and I think one person even wanted a photo.
But that was it. Which means I really like the idea that there were people waking up on Sunday morning – bleary eyed, dehydrated and craving fried food – with hazy recollections of seeing a half a dozen or so guys all dressed in white, but not being entirely sure if we actually existed. I know most of us probably don’t have a lot in common with those 80s film stars, but that doesn’t mean there can’t have been a few people wondering exactly what bar they had been drinking in the night before.
There is one final admission I should own up to: I’ve never actually seen Top Gun. I know the main protagonists, certainly, and can hum a few bars of Take My Breath Away, but I’d never heard of my namesake Slider (he doesn’t even get mentioned in Wikipedia’s plot summary for the film!). Most intriguing, for a staunchly heterosexual man I found myself more ‘impressed’ than I would ever have expected by the sharp creases of a bunch of well-ironed white shirts (you need to be looking really hard for the mango chutney stain I accidentally got on mine). Which means I now fear ever watching Top Gun in case I start developing unwanted feelings towards Tom Cruise, particularly at the point he dons the dress uniform… And if that isn’t the complete antithesis of what stag parties are usually about, then I don’t know what is.
The ‘tour of the indies’, blogged about in such fastidious (and slightly amateurish, I have since realised) fashion here, has morphed into a project all of its own. Regular readers will know that independent cinemas have had something of a profound impact upon me – I like what they stand for, and how they do it. I would like to get involved in their world in one form or another, and this is my attempt at doing so on my own initiative.
It may flourish, it may wither and die. We can only wait and see.
Well, you can wait and see. The ultimate result depends on me putting a bit of effort in first. So where does that leave this here blog, yet to even reach its first anniversary?
‘The Repository 2’ will continue. At this stage, I can only hope that I find enough time to still write the occasional post on a random subject. I’ll certainly endeavour to do so. Quite possibly, it will end up as a string of pub quiz round-ups and I’ll rename it ‘The Repository of Quizzing Knowledge’. I’d like to think I’ll still write the odd poem too, but that seam remains largely un-mined at present. It still exists though; it’s not a dry well.
When I awoke on January 1st this year, sat up in bed and lazily continued reading Bill Bryson’s Down Under, wondering at the back of my mind what the following 364 days might hold, I didn’t imagine that nine months later I would have quite so much I wanted to try and achieve. By some people’s standards, perhaps I’m doing it all quite slowly, or even ineffectively. To my mind, the main thing is: I’m doing it.
None of it is making me any money (of course/yet/will it ever?), but then a lot of people do things for no financial reward. Don’t get me wrong – everything I’m doing and trying is for the pure enjoyment of it. Crucially, though, I feel like I’m getting ‘better’ (more confident) each step along the way, so if it were to lead me down a new and vaguely-related career path at the same time, I would be one happy man.
I’m a patient person; I still believe in “good things come to those who wait” as much as I now understand how I need to make things happen for myself. Perhaps the next stage is to learn how much patience is too much patience, and how long is too long before realising what the next stage after that is. This is such a new way of thinking for me that I still can’t quite smother that one niggling thought – what if it doesn’t work at all, what if it is a complete waste of time? I guess the only answer to that is – I have to make sure it does, and that it isn’t.
Many authors can finish a novel within 500-600 pages, often less. Some stories need more than that though, which is fine. At 933 pages long, Needful Things is certainly a fine example of current bookbinding techniques, but it is not unusual in the Stephen King canon. The Stand, for example, is one of his finest works and every bit the modern epic. While that story spans the entire United States of America, Needful Things is rather more localised, so far focussing on the single town of Castle Rock in Maine, and the titular shop gracing its high street.
“So far” because I’m only just over half way through it and, honestly, struggling a little. It’s good, certainly, but also the very definition of a ‘slow-burner’ because it only properly grabbed me between pages 300 and 400(!). The intriguing and creepy central premise kept me going, but it’s hard to believe other people wouldn’t have given up well before the chapter that sees two women and a dog lose their lives.
The setting is crucial, for a group of people travelling across a continent are bound to encounter new people here and there (in The Stand, the majority of the population is wiped out by a virus). When you set your story in a small town, and spend a LONG TIME describing the arthritic troubles of one of the main characters, it feels like the picture has been painted. The main thrust of this argument, then, is the fact that at 450 pages in, your favourite author and mine chooses to introduce a new character.
450 pages! For pity’s sake!
Some writers see wars start and end, or tear entire galaxies asunder, in less paper than that. Here, for nearly the entire first half of Needful Things, Ace Merrill doesn’t get a mention. Not even a namedrop at page 75 to foreshadow his later appearance. Honestly. Anyone would think novelists just make it up as they go along sometimes.
Mentioning it in the last post reminded me of this that I wrote last year, so it seemed fitting to re-post it here:
Dave, a friend of mine, owns a dog.
He is friendly, largely obedient, and enjoys playing with a ball.
The dog exhibits very similar qualities.
Jim – for that is the dog’s name – is allowed to ‘do his business’ in the garden, and in this respect (thankfully) he is in no way like his owner. Unfortunately, this perfectly natural occurrence has ruined Dave’s lawn, leading to an intensive programme of scarification, reseeding and general lawn care.
My neighbours own a number of cats. They regularly wander into my garden, sniff at my pots and tubs, and dwell in the borders watching birds.
Mercifully, the neighbours don’t copy this behaviour.
I am no expert when it comes to lawns and gardens, made obvious by the necessity to check the spelling of ‘scarification’ before settling down to write this (‘trimming’ being the most I’ve done to my grass since moving in three months ago). Nor am I an expert when it comes to animals and pets, but based on the destruction of Dave’s lawn by a humble dog, I witness with trepidation this feline multitude frequent my garden.
Perhaps cats can do a garden no harm, but I am not certain. Of the fact that I possess no desire to harm a cat I am certain. But, to give myself the best chance of keeping the garden in a reasonable condition, I would prefer they stayed away. To that effect, I have waged a systematic campaign of passive aggression the likes of which the back gardens of England have never witnessed. Probably.
As a result, the four – or five; it might even be six (a number of them look identical and need to be seen together for an accurate census) – cats know they are not welcome at number 8. This doesn’t stop them coming over the fence of course, and likely they run amok while I’m out at work all day. But when I’m home, the merest suggestion that I might leave the house for the garden is enough to send them scampering back to the correct side of said fence.
All except for one cat…
He – for I presume it to be a ‘he’ – has remained wholly unperturbed by my efforts. Sitting on my lawn, basking in the sun, he refuses to even flinch as I walk within feet of him. He watches my pottering about with a certain fascination, offering nothing but a defiant stare if I direct any sort of attention toward him to suggest he might go elsewhere. Occasionally I look out into the garden and see a cat-free scene, only to turn away, turn back again seconds later and find he has appeared in the centre of the lawn, as if from nowhere.
That the behaviour of this one individual is so markedly different from his fellow cats – they don’t share his unconcerned attitude, but seem unwilling to copy him – has led me to only one possible (and sensible?) conclusion.
My imagination has created a cat nemesis.
Which means I have absolutely no idea how to deal with him. Still, at least his fictional 'business' can't kill the grass.
“If I could walk with the animals! Talk to the animals! Grunt, and squeak, and squawk with the animals … And they could talk to me!”
* * *
If somebody had said at the end of June that I’d be caring for a kitten and taking ownership of a puppy two months later, I’m not sure I’d have believed them. There’s a distinct possibility I wouldn’t have actually heard them say it in the first place, for my head was overrun with thoughts at the time: trying to enjoy a first proper holiday in two years, at the same time as dealing with a fraught car buying experience that came with a £300 sting in the tail, and dreading the prospect of a particularly emotional funeral.
I know these things are part of life and we all have to deal with them, but dealing with them – particularly for the first time – is what shapes us. And boy, was I getting shaped. The idea of partaking in animal husbandry wasn’t just not on the radar; the radar itself didn’t even exist.
And it’s not like people ever refer to me as ‘Doolittle’ in day-to-day life. I’ve recounted experiences with animals in a previous online life, most notably dealings with a former neighbour’s feline army. At risk of inviting unsavoury jokes, me and other species are not natural bedfellows.
So this last weekend has been something of an eye-opener. Toto, the polydactyl kitten, has been with us for two weeks, but dealing with both him and Chloe, our seven week-old Springer Spaniel, has proved to be a breathless experience. It is said that being forced out of your comfort zone is something to be embraced, but what I didn’t realise is that it also involves being shifted out of your physical space. Being relegated to the landing to do the ironing – as opposed to setting up in the living room and sticking on the Doctor Who Series 5 Blu-ray – was the icing on the cake.
Of course, they’re both adorable animals (Toto even sits and watches football with me sometimes). But that doesn’t mean much when my authority over Chloe starts to wane after less than 48 hours. Kath, my better half, is training in animal behaviour, so she knows how she wants us to raise Chloe. I’m trying to adapt, but when faced with a creature acting on instinct – and a cute, tiny creature at that – it’s hard not to react in similar terms. And when I do think I’m getting it right, apparently my voice betrays a lack of confidence and she pays me no attention anyway.
“Use a higher pitch when you talk to her,” says Kath. “Come here, Chloe,” I squeak. Not only do I feel stupid, she still doesn’t listen. Pity I can’t ignore her when she starts yapping at four o’clock in the morning… Again, I recognise that worse things happen to people far more undeserving than me, but life is treating my soul like Play-Doh again. I managed fifteen minutes (FIFTEEN MINUTES!) of writing over a three-day weekend. My creative ambitions feel like my car – unexpected warning lights glaring out from the dashboard just as I’m getting comfortable in the driver’s seat. The home I’ve just settled into suddenly feels like an alien planet.
* * *
Can I have my comfort zone back please? It’s little wonder that I see the constant rain of bird shit on my car as a metaphor. Damn animals, even the birds are tormenting me! By eight o’clock on Sunday evening, I’m craving the comfort and reassurance of the weekly pub quiz. It’s the last hope for normality. If I can’t reclaim some self-esteem dredging up pointless trivia from the dark recesses of my brain, it’s time to give up.
And it doesn’t disappoint – I even get to throw in some geeky and wholly unnecessary knowledge of Formula One to make myself feel better. The difficulty level is such that we’re pretty sure we won’t win, but we hope to be in with a shout. To simply sit back, relax, and answer a few questions is to recall the carefree days that adulthood too often casts by the wayside. We enjoy some good conversation, a half-time chip bap, and a score of 46 points out of a possible 65. Teams have won with less in the past. The competitive instinct may be subdued by the release of pressure, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear our name read out somewhere in the top three.
The results are announced. The winners score 61.5.
Oh well, better luck next week. It’s not the taking part that counts; it’s the reassurance to be had from a routine of simply turning up in the first place. I return home, wondering what time Kath and I are going to be woken up.
Sadly, despite the reasonable quality pun of the title, it actually bears no relation to the contents of this post – the words just sprung into my head and I decided to stick with it. Of course, if in the course of writing I suddenly find myself embroiled in a rescue mission to a couple of downed helicopters, I’ll be sure to mention it.
The principal reason for this post is to deal with the recent decline of blogging activity, an occurrence that must be causing consternation around the globe as people cry out, “HAS HE FORGOTTEN US??”. If nothing else, it may be causing a bit of head scratching on the rather dodgy sounding Russian websites that have been unexpectedly cropping up in the blog stats.
While it is true that inspiration for the usual array of random topics that constitute the Repository 2’s output has not been wholly forthcoming, that is not to say I’ve been lazy and/or uninspired. At the end of June I started a writing course run by Stoke-on-Trent libraries (an advanced writing course, no less!), and that has consumed three of the last five Saturdays. In between those Saturdays there has been ‘homework’, as well as feedback to give on the other course attendee’s work, and so the blog has taken a back seat.
The course – entitled ‘What’s The Story’ – has, frankly, been a revelation. On a fundamental level, the opportunity to sit in a group of six or seven people and discuss each other’s writing (as well as writing in general) has been confidence building and inspiring. To have a group of strangers – most female, of all ages, and all from massively different backgrounds and social groups – say they enjoyed something I wrote, particularly something heavily featuring cinema and Formula One, was about the best I could have hoped for.
I’ve learnt a lot from their work too. You don’t realise how little you’ve lived until someone writes about their son’s battle with Hepatitis B, or their desperate search for a counsellor who will help them deal with issues rooted deep in childhood, or their struggles growing up under a religion they don’t identify with in the slightest. The third, and most recent, of the five sessions was by far the best as we all continued to grow more comfortable in each other’s company (there’s no better way to get a feel for people than by reading their work), so it’s a shame that we’ve now gone into a summer break with only two Saturdays left afterward.
The biggest potential long-term impact is the ideas I’ve gained, however. When I started doing blog posts about visiting independent cinemas, the thought never crossed my cluttered mind that anything more could come of it. Now I’m writing a 5000-word course project on the topic, adapting those blog posts into something better and more substantial, and e-mailing the cinemas involved to ask them questions about how they get on being independent. There are many, many angles from which to approach the topic, and I’m beginning to think I could do them all justice. It’s all built to a grand idea that I hope to start enacting in the next few weeks, but I think I’ll keep quiet about it for now…
Ultimately, whatever projects result from it all, the simple fact is that independent cinemas are brilliant and need to be championed. How good would it be if I could be involved doing it? If that should happen in the next six or twelve months, there are seven people that I’d never met five weeks ago who will deserve a great deal of thanks. And who knows, maybe this blog – or a whole new blog – will finally get the direction it has probably been crying out for since I wrote that first post on … yep, indie cinemas. If only I’d known to recognise the signs!
A quick postscript on my poetic efforts (or lack of them) – it won’t come as much surprise that having been so totally consumed by the course and the ideas resulting from it, my poetry writing has suffered. I’ve come to realise there is a place for both things, so I certainly won’t be abandoning poetry completely, I just need to be able to find the time to sit and craft a poem properly rather than rely on thinking one up in ten minutes and hoping it’s good enough. The well of ideas hasn’t run dry, but the mechanism used to raise and lower the bucket is being a bit temperamental and I’m struggling to draw water.
The door creaked in well-rehearsed protest, suggesting it might choose to fall from its hinges at any moment and that I’d better be grateful if it didn’t. I wasn’t worrying about that, however – the surge of memory was too overpowering, struggling to recall days of yore. Fleetingly, I wondered when the door had last been opened and whether it too was experiencing memories. Or maybe it was secretly glad of simply being called into service.
It’s a long time since I found myself somewhere like this. I haven’t needed to do this in years…
Inside, it smelled nothing like as bad as I expected it would. In fact, nothing conformed to any of the usual stereotypes – everything was clean, everything worked. There was nothing pinned up – no ‘business cards’ or adverts for dubious services offered by local ladies. It was just like phone boxes used to be! I glanced outside to make sure nobody was watching and promptly checked the ‘change return’ compartment, but there was nothing doing. Presumably somebody had got there before me.
Not that I’d entered the phone box just to check for spare coins. I had genuine reason to use this dwindling public facility, having accidentally stranded myself on an island in the sea of technology. By which I mean I’d left the house without my mobile. And boy was it a struggle to find an alternative.
Being ‘mobile-less’ was a strange, unfamiliar sensation. I was out all day and kept patting my pockets to make sure I had everything I should, then wondered why one was empty. Oh yeah, it’s at home. It caused me to reflect on how technology has become so integral to us, and how disconnected we feel without it. Sometimes it’s good to take a break, but on this occasion it was at best a mild nuisance. And because of the nature of social interaction these days, I naturally felt the need to share my inconsequential predicament WITH AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE.
I don’t own a smartphone but can at least text tweets if I want to update my Twitter feed, and even this was beyond my capabilities. I was walking round with amusing thoughts and witty observations about trying to locate and then use a phone box coursing through my head, bereft of anyone to share them with! It’s a miracle I didn’t suffer a breakdown…
Where my head nearly did suffer a (genuine, non-sarcastic) meltdown was in trying to work out how to actually make a call from the phone box. A fee of 60p was demanded, two-thirds of which apparently covered a connection charge. The challenge lay in how to pay the 60p, because the instructions also demanded that NO MORE THAN FOUR COINS BE USED TO MAKE UP THE INITIAL CHARGE.
Eh? This is a phone box we’re talking about! And I’m a pathetic modern man who has forgotten his mobile phone and needs to make a call! ONE CALL!
Okay, it wasn’t that bad – mercifully there was plenty of change in my wallet. But in an alien environment, the last thing you want is to be confronted with a puzzle from one of those Mensa ‘Test Your IQ’ books. How many different ways are there of making up a pound in change? When is a 50p coin not a 50p coin? And how can BT make using a public telephone far more difficult than it needs to be?
There was some suggestion in the small print to the instructions that the remaining 20p provided half an hour of call time, but when the connection was eventually made and the crude display showed the remaining credit, it offered no more information than: £0.00. I expected the line to go dead any second, and once I’d said everything of import and the line was still functioning perfectly, I felt inclined to keep my Mum on the line for as long as it took to use up all three 20p coins swallowed by the machine.
Ironically, faced with a chasm of time that possessed unknown length/depth/whatever else might make this ridiculous metaphor work, my mind went blank of what to talk about and I elected to surrender whatever credit was left and go about my business. Perhaps it was the relief of establishing contact – however limited – with ‘my’ world. Perhaps it was simply that, in the end, using a phone box wasn’t quite as peculiar experience as might be expected these days – after all, the principle of credit is no different from anyone with a pay-as-you-go phone.
It’s just a shame there are only three – maybe four, at a push – telephone numbers I can actually remember. And one of them is the same home in which I’d left my mobile. Call me a visionary if you feel it appropriate – I think the mobile phone is here to stay.
Having previously given thought to the issues involved withpoetry competitions, and then failed to make the final shortlist for the Buxton contest that sparked this adventure into poetry itself, I recently found the time and inclination to prepare a couple of new entries. The competitions I deemed worthy of my attention (!) were notable ones – notable in the sense that they offered some excellent prizes (£5000 for the winner of one!) – though I don’t await the results with any eagerness because I almost certainly won’t win.
Despite the apparent prestige of these competitions (I say apparent because, in respect of one particular competition at least, for a novice like me there is only the scale of the prize and the presence of a few testimonials as evidence that success might lead somewhere), one thing remains unchanged – the requirement to send Stamped Address Envelopes (SAEs) if one wishes to be provided with a receipt of entry or a list of winners.
Where a small operation is concerned – my mind immediately thinks of the one-man-band poetry magazine that is Quantum Leap, and a remarkable achievement it is too (it’s even agreed to publish me!) – SAEs are vital to their continuing viability and ability to keep costs reasonable. But where a larger operation is concerned – like a competition offering five grand as a first prize – you have to wonder just how efficient a system utilising SAEs is.
Maybe it could be argued that all the SAEs simply get piled in a corner ready to be filled with, say, the yet-to-be-decided list of winners – straightforward enough, if a little labour intensive. But it still smacks of being the brainchild of someone who fondly remembers a world before the internet existed, and where Blue Peter used to send out factsheets for ‘How To Build Your Own Tracy Island’ in a similar manner.
Which begs the question – is it the publishers and administrators influencing this ‘old-fashioned’ method, or the poets? For example, are all the amateur writers out there modelling themselves on Roald Dahl, sitting in garden sheds with a pencil in hand and writing on paper supported by a soil-encrusted plank of wood?
Is ‘new’ technology so rare among poets that the Royal Mail is the only feasible medium by which competitions can be conducted? I would find it hard to believe if you answered ‘yes’ to that question. After all, there are enough people (of more advanced years than me) attending the Poetry Stanza in Burslem who are able to type and print their poems, and keep abreast of Stanza news via e-mail. One woman does an internet radio show for pity’s sake! You can’t tell me any of them would struggle adapting to entering competitions online.
Contrary to where this argument might seem to be going, however, I am not one of those people who advocate an ‘all or nothing’ policy and seek to penalise those who are unable – for whatever reason – to take advantage of the benefits offered by the internet. I don’t seek to condemn people who prefer using stamps to enter competitions, and I also acknowledge that probably the biggest stumbling block to these contests becoming entirely electronic is the issue of fee payment. Just because someone can type a poem and send it by e-mail doesn’t mean they can grasp online payment systems. Moreover, they may not want to pay for things online, a sentiment I can relate to much more easily given my own (seemingly limitless, at times) potential for paranoia.
That does not excuse the fact, though, that a competition asking for my e-mail address on its entry form does not then utilise said e-mail address to provide a list of winners without the need for paper, ink or envelopes. If I am not to be the winner then I certainly don’t care about the result enough to waste a stamp so the result can drop on my doormat like a lead weight on my soul. Just this once, I would be happy to shout at them, “Put me on a mailing list and keep me up to date with news, special offers etc!!”
I am not sufficiently brave or well informed to declare that the poetry world should embrace an electronic and online revolution. But in an age when so many other forms of media and creativity have embraced a ‘non-print’ alternative (even if it is in tandem with traditional publishing), poetry – or the poetry I have thus far been exposed to – seems determined to tread its well-worn path. I can’t decide if this is admirable or stupid, but it does make one wonder whether there is anything to be gained from starting to push a dedicated online agenda.
If you have any ideas or thoughts on the matter, why not write to me? And enclose an SAE, so I can reply to you…
Impressions, as we are all forced to confront at some point in our lives, are key. The city of Edinburgh, for example, has got it sussed when it comes to impressions – our first visit two years ago left an indelible appreciation for its charms and, in June 2011, it did an excellent job of pretending to be November. Mind you, there’s nothing like a hefty dose of rain and temperatures struggling to get out of single figures to appease the guilt of spending some of your ‘summer’ holiday in a cinema watching a documentary about climate change.
Conversely, impressions are not my personal forte, perhaps evidenced by a dislike of photos of myself appearing on the internet (and nor can I do a decent Frank Spencer). So having made arrangements to meet Edinburgh-based blogger Milo McLaughlin in the Filmhouse café-bar, he didn’t have much to go on when scanning faces in the crowd. Quite what he made of this we never got to discuss, but fortunately I had a much better idea of what Milo looked like, and once spotted we duly chatted away over a few beers for what felt like much less than the ninety minutes it actually was.
It was a fitting meeting in several respects – the Repository 2’s first post was on the subject of independent cinema (indeed, one of the responses to that post was the spark that ignited the ‘tour of the indies’, resulting in me and my better half putting a visit to Filmhouse on the to-do list). And not long after the birth of the blog I came across Milo’s own current project – ‘The Clear-Minded Creative’.
The thoughtful content of posts on the C-MC – alongside Milo’s willingness to both discuss matters of creativity with, and provide encouragement to, his readers – has proved to be a real inspiration in the first half of 2011. I’ve started to build a network of ‘creative contacts’ as a result, and I’ve felt more confident in producing and sharing work. It’s even been a consistent source of feedback, to the point that I submitted a fledgling poetry effort (that might otherwise have remained untouched) to a magazine and it is due to be my first published poem.
All things considered, then, it was a pleasure to buy Milo a beer and talk matters of life, the universe and creativity; even more so in the slightly hectic surroundings of Filmhouse’s café-bar. Maybe it was the ceaseless rain outside, maybe it was the matter of being in the middle of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF); maybe it was the ‘2-for-1 Tuesday’ offer on tickets, maybe Filmhouse is just a popular place to hang out. Or maybe ALL of those reasons together accounted for the bustle.
Whatever, it felt a vibrant place to be, and with a well-stocked bar and even-better-stocked cake counter (as well as a tempting menu of mains that we returned to sample the following evening) it more than catered for our needs. And what of the cinematic offerings? While the 2011 EIFF has come in for a good deal of criticism from seasoned festivalgoers and more experienced commentators than me, there can be little doubt that the regular movie-fare is an enticing selection of new and classic cinema.
You wouldn’t turn your nose up at the programmes offered by any of the stops on the tour, but the Filmhouse brochure for July seemed to offer a selection with that little bit more diversity – and therefore temptation to never leave(!) – than anywhere else so far. Burning Ice was our film to focus on, however, and thanks to chatting with Milo for as long as we possibly could before the 8pm start, we shuffled our way to a couple of seats in a dark ‘Filmhouse 1’ a couple of minutes into a preceding short film. The synopsis for the documentary stated, in a rather matter-of-fact fashion, that a group of artists (including Jarvis Cocker and KT Tunstall) visited the Arctic to witness the effects of climate change before performing at the Latitude festival.
Such sparse information did not make clear that the two events were related: the trip was a tour of Greenlandic communities and melting glaciers, run by the Cape Farewell project, from which the artists would draw inspiration to produce songs, comedy material, photography, or something else entirely (depending upon their creative specialism). Quite how you measure the success of such a scheme is another matter – the group was weighted significantly toward musicians, and given that songs perhaps have the greatest potential to be abstract in dealing with their subject matter, the sung material was arguably less effective in engaging an audience than, say, the stand-up written by Marcus Brigstocke.
For my money, it would have benefited from at least one other comedian, though the greatest benefit of all might have been to exorcise the quote by poet Lemn Sissay who went from the valid point that climate change will affect poor people most, to the unfounded assertion that climate change is about race. Maybe it was the manner in which it was edited, but that really got my back up… Ultimately, though, where Burning Ice was most effective was the depiction of Greenland life, and the appreciation by the artists on the expedition for both that and the work of the scientists.
Unfortunately, I am unable to report any further on what the screen itself was like, because the effect of the pint-and-a-half of beer I drank (shocking…) was that I could make it through the film more than comfortably, but needed to head straight for the toilet before the lights came up. As a way to end the latest stop on the ‘tour of the indies’ it might be considered anti-climactic, but Filmhouse had already ensured that the Scottish leg of proceedings had been an outstanding success.
There is at least one cinematic enticement to return to Edinburgh sometime, and that is the Cameo cinema, just down the road from Filmhouse. We would have visited this time but for influences out of our control. One thing is for sure – it will have to go some to meet Filmhouse’s standards, but that is what happens when a venue makes such a good impression…
What’s this? A bonus stop on the ‘tour of the indies’?
Taking in mainstream cinema?
Well, yes, actually. With the usual merry band of cinema-goers split up due to the mundane logistics of finding enough time to journey past those ‘Welcome to Scotland’ signs where they dominate the motorway verge, the Tour took on a slightly different complexion for its most northerly offering. ‘@Jimvincible’ and ‘@M8iekay’ had already made their trip to Filmhouse in Edinburgh (enjoying what, in Le Quattro Volte, must surely rank as one of the best films about goat farming ever made), so it fell to me to introduce my better half to the joys of putting as much effort into selecting the venue as selecting the film to be watched.
Before our own visit to Filmhouse, we took the opportunity of spending a day in St. Andrews, home of the New Picture House (NPH) cinema. The town itself might be one of the most relaxing places we’ve ever experienced (even when inadvertently walking in front of the opening tee-shot of someone who had shelled out £130 for the privilege of playing the Old Course…). The fine, calm weather was doubtless a significant factor in creating that relaxed air, but anywhere dominated by golfers, students and money is never going to feel like a fraught and fragile melting pot of social inequality and recession-inflicted pressures.
Even so, with the possible exception of golfing attire, nothing is forced down your throat in St. Andrews, and there is a little bit of something to suit everybody. Nowhere is this better exemplified than the B. Jannetta ‘Gelateria’, which would be the only place to go if something were to be forced down your throat – a myriad of genuinely interesting and inventive ice creams, including such delights as ‘brown bread’ flavour (which we didn’t try) and ‘apple pie’ flavour – which we certainly did try and found to be magnificent, like a Willy Wonka creation where an entire dessert is contained within one easy-to-eat product.
And then there was the cabinet containing the ice cream cakes…!
Given such a context, it’s not difficult to understand how the NPH has found its niche in St. Andrews. As a former theatre converted to house three screens it offers all the individuality you could want from an independent cinema, including the option to sit up in the circle if your film of choice happens to be showing on the main screen. With the lack of an immediate multiplex neighbour, and a student community right on the doorstep, it also offers the very latest releases. Hence, in return for me getting to choose our viewing at Filmhouse, we watched my better half’s choice of Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel.
Were it not for the presence of Segel then I would likely have approached the film with more pessimism than I did, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a genuine favourite and Segel is a likeable comic actor. Bad Teacher was entertaining enough, somewhat inconsistent, but raised a few chuckles – most of them where Segel was involved. Maybe the venue aided the experience (or maybe it was a quiet Monday evening and we just fell lucky), but despite being in the tiny Screen 3 and the film therefore being relatively well-attended, there was no disruption to the evening’s viewing and the people on the row in front of us even ate their MASSIVE tub of popcorn quietly.
Against expectations, then, the NPH proved that there is a place for a mainstream comedy on the ‘tour of the indies’. Whether that was a triumph of venue over film choice could be debated over several stiff drinks – frankly, it doesn’t really matter. It does, however, demonstrate the potential for an experience apposite to the conclusions drawn after the recent visit toBroadway in Nottingham.
That has been the beauty of this tour – finding different cinematic offerings, sometimes in unexpected places. Certainly, I had no idea that a town on the east coast of Scotland, famous the world over (mostly for golf, slightly less for its University, not at all for cinema) and 300+ miles from home, would give such a notable offering.
Viva the tour! If only all the stops had such great ice cream shops…
A signpost at the roundabout on the main road through Kinross indicates Cowdenbeath as being 9 miles away. We peer at it through the teeming rain, expressionless under the limited shelter of our umbrellas.
“I don’t know if there’s anything in Cowdenbeath,” I say to my better half, only recognising the name because I’m pretty sure they have a football team somewhere in the Scottish League, “but if there is then at least it’s not far away.”
Checking The Rough Guide to Scotland, Cowdenbeath is not listed in the index, a fact that could only be classed as an achievement if you were being deliberately ironic. Where it does get one passing mention – on page 393 of the eighth edition, should you be interested – it is described as “an old mining town” that is “huddle[d] together” with similar settlements, all of which are “routinely ignored by visitors” and make for a “forlorn stretch” of the journey if you happen to be going through on a train.
We are in the process of finding out what Kinross (and its signposts) has to offer and the place is extremely quiet, which makes our scouting mission a simple task. Of the few people we see out and about on the main street – bearing in mind that it is 5.30pm on a Saturday afternoon – one man waits at a bus stop. We assume he has somewhere exciting to be, except that when we see him board a vehicle, the destination shows as ‘Cowdenbeath Bus Depot’, thus summing up Kinross’ appeal rather neatly, we feel.
For an admittedly small settlement whose main area of interest is barely a mile long, Kinross actually boasts a number of interesting and impressive buildings. Where they fall down (or, in the case of one particular building, where it is literallyfalling down) is that they are all boarded up, out of use, and on the market as ‘ideal development opportunities’.
It’s not hard to understand why – for one, as the Rough Guide says, most tourists are too busy bypassing the place on the M90 to spend any time or money here, which has the knock on effect that, second, nobody already in Kinross seems to have any money to spend (with the possible exception of the hotel in which we have chosen to base ourselves, but there is always one exception to a rule). Clearly, the one weekend a year that ‘T in the Park’ takes place nearby does not a community sustain, particularly in a recession…
So it is that the local Indian restaurant, The Raj Mahal, has just about the most unwelcoming front door you will ever see at the entrance to an eating establishment – all undecorated wood and minimal glazing, like a door in a hospital – that suggests you shouldn’t really see what lies beyond. Under those circumstances, the offer of a £12.95 all-you-can-eat buffet meal is nowhere near sufficient enticement to try it out. Across the road, several properties show the strain of sitting so close to a main road, with windows reduced to bare timber and gradually rotting away in a final show of flawed defiance.
The one genuine attraction in Kinross is Loch Leven, which offers a glimpse of ‘proper’ Scotland in contrast to the decay of the nearby built environment. Sadly, the elements are conspiring against tourism on this particular day and Kirkgate Park on the shores of the Loch is windswept, waterlogged and every bit as deserted (or ‘abandoned’, to be particularly uncharitable) as the main street we have just left behind. While we try to appreciate what an impressive sight the Loch must be when not shrouded in cloud, a tracksuit-clad figure emerges from the squall and shuffles past us without a word of acknowledgement. This is something of a blessing given that our initial expectation is for her to start intoning a warning along the lines of, “Beware Ye who remain here!” – an expectation that is only reinforced by the sight of numerous boat-shaped silhouettes on the water, all of which carry hooded, wraith-like figures.
We know fishermen are hardy souls but today they simply look as though they might come and attempt to claim us for the water, so we quickly do an about turn and head back to the sanctuary and shelter of the Kirklands Hotel which, on the evidence of this walk through Kinross, is the brightest spot of a rather dishevelled (but probably once thriving) village-trying-to-be-a-destination-for-golfers. Tomorrow, we’ll probably go up the motorway and see somewhere else. What’s that they say about progress…?
Postscript – Sunday
Thanks to a wholly unexpected reversal in the weather, we choose not to venture onto the motorway network and instead return to Loch Leven for a more thorough exploration. Not only are there more people about on the main street than yesterday (lending Kinross an almost bustling feel at 10am on Sunday!), but Kirkgate Park is transformed with families, dog walkers and cyclists all making use of the trail that runs round most of the Loch’s circumference.
It really is an absolute gem of a tourist attraction, and along with a chat with the hotel owners about the area (apparently the recession never really hit Kinross, and the redundant buildings can be put down to other factors, most of which relate to local politics), we start to realise that there is a little more to the place than meets the eye. As is so often the case, it seems that it just needs a few important people to realise what it is that attracts investment and a few more tourists…