Appearance on Jennifer Byrne Presents: Envy

Angela Meyer J Byrne

I was honoured to be a guest on Jennifer Byrne Presents, an offshoot of the First Tuesday Book Club, to discuss one of the seven deadly sins, envy, along with Greg Sheridan, Lyndon Terracini and Kate McClymont. The show aired on 19 August on ABC, and will be available for a limited time on iview. There’s also an outtake up on YouTube, where I discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What was it like? It was a surreal and wonderful experience. I always suffer from nerves, a terror that I will say something incredibly stupid or not be able to say anything at all. I worry that I will freeze, say ‘uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ until everyone wonders why the hell I was invited to be on the show, let alone do anything in public, ever. The nerves are physical. You can’t tell on screen but my knees were juddering the whole time.

My reading around the subject was crammed; the shoot happened during the busiest period of my life so far. But I did find I had plenty of opinions on the topic of envy, and books from which I could draw. Study comes naturally to me. I love to read deeply, probe books through to their guts and bones (meaning, themes, context, structure). I probably don’t have to mention that—it’s why I do so much of what I do!

As soon as I knew about the appearance I saved to buy a dress just for it. Funnily enough, the green was an accident. Which is quite embarrassing to admit. The dress was chosen for me by Tracey at Frocks & Slacks in St Kilda, who is incredible and knows your size and what will suit you just by looking at you. I didn’t realise I was dressing to theme until Jennifer called me out on it (she was going for subtle green). It might sound like a superficial detail, but dressing up, wearing make-up (thanks ABC make-up department), doing my nails—these are part of preparing for the stage or a camera. Not armour; more coaxing out the confident part of myself, trying to sneak her past the quivering, doubting part. Because of course I want to do this, am capable of doing it, and may even be good at it. 

It was all a bit of a blur, because of the adrenaline. Walking onto the set was exactly how you’d imagine it would be: bright lights, lots of cameras pointed in your direction. There was a small studio audience, which I found very helpful. I’m more used to speaking to an audience.

I didn’t remember much of what I’d said, afterwards, so I felt relief when I watched the show the other day and realised I did just fine. Jennifer also said some kind words to me afterwards. It’s not that I ever fear I don’t have the knowledge (because I always prepare); it’s more a worry of being unable to articulate what I know. I imagine being caught in this absurd, Beckettian loop of miscommunication. ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.’ I also have a shocking memory, which fails me more when I panic.

When I left the ABC studios, I was on a high. It did feel like a step in a new direction, and that’s been confirmed by the amount of people in my Facebook feed who never normally talk to me but suddenly think I’m famous. (Publishing a book wasn’t enough for ya, ay?) But I’m also aware it’ll fade, as anything does. I’ll just enjoy this glow for a little longer, while getting on with my work. Dentist bills are certainly keeping me down here on earth.

One other thing: out of the other guests I most enjoyed meeting Lyndon Terracini, the director of Opera Australia. We clicked over Kafka, and I found him a very warm person. That’s something I’m grateful for, with all the travel and gigs I get to do: meeting interesting people. Jennifer Byrne, as you can probably tell from her screen presence, is also incredibly warm, smart, and funny.

Thanks to all of you who watched, and those who have come by the blog afterwards. Subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to see more of me talking to camera about books!

‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll’

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip (2010)

First published on the Stoffers blog.

You have to allow yourself one indulgence while travelling: one wild night, one big purchase, two nights at a five star hotel… I just had my one indulgence for this trip. And it relates to a 2010 TV series (that was also turned into a film) called The Trip, starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.

In The Trip, Brydon and Coogs play themselves on a restaurant tour of the north of England. Coogs was meant to go with his girlfriend, but she has gone to the US and he (reluctantly) takes his friend/colleague/competitor Brydon instead. They bicker, they tease, they do impressions, they eat and drink (a lot) and both annoy and charm the viewer.

I’m obsessed with it.

So the other day I did the nerdiest thing. I visited one of the locations in the show which also happens to be a very classy restaurant and accommodation called Holbeck Ghyll.

Holbeck Ghyll

Holbeck Ghyll is a former hunting lodge, built in the late 19th century. The taxi took us up a steep driveway and emerged on a hilltop with a stunning view of the surrounding Cumbrian countryside.

The view from Holbeck Ghyll, taken by Stoffers Abroad

Inside the building we were greeted as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, and treated immediately to pre-lunch cocktails, breadsticks and a cream cheese and truffle dip. My choice was a martini (shaken not stirred).

DSC04840

We ordered our lunch and were then taken through to a table near the window, almost exactly where Brydon and Coogan sat in the show. Perhaps it was our Aussie accents that got us such a good table.

I sat facing the window and was able to watch robins attending a bird feeder in the garden, as well as a dog nosing about (England is SO dog-friendly, they’re everywhere).

We ate scallops, ham hock and beef, we drank white and red wine (‘farewell to the white wine, hello to our old friend the red’), and whisky too. We forgot to care about the bill (I’m sure that’s why cocktails are offered first). And then we finished with the most incredible cheese we’ve ever tasted.

ALL the cheese.

ALL the cheese.

We were treated so well. The restaurant is out of our usual budget range, yes, but it’s not snooty. There were some ‘moneyed’ customers (you can tell by cars, fabrics and conversation) and then others dressed casually in shorts. We did overhear a couple of guys quoting from The Trip, as we were, and then overheard another couple on the bus the next day as we drove past. It’s a phenomenon.

We acted out all the classic parts of the episode, taking note of the salt, which is arranged like a line of cocaine (‘bit weird, Rob’), saying ‘come ‘ere with a cracker’ to the cheese, and acting out the part where the restaurant is name checked:

‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll. You might remember me from Follyfoot. I’m here to tell you about a wonderful new walk-in bath. And softly softly.’

Before we left, and the large hole in our wallets was revealed, I made sure to lather on as much as I could of the expensive hand cream in the loos. It was worth it—for the meta-restaurant experience,  imitating the imitators, and because of the incredible food (the portions were real-sized, too). We had to go take a nap afterwards.

‘I’m Holbeck Ghyll. Goodnight.’

Hell is for Hyphenates: Billy Wilder

LA da daaa da, da da da da da...

LA da daaa da, da da da da da…

I was stoked to be the June 2013 guest on the Hell is for Hyphenates film podcast with Paul Anthony Nelson and Lee Zachariah. Each month they discuss new releases and then explore the filmography of a director/filmmaker suggested by their guest. I chose Billy Wilder, because his films (though varied) all have an intelligent, pessimistic backbone, which makes the comedies sharp, and the dramas dark (but often with moments of humour).

I’m fascinated that the same director is behind the best comedy of all time Some Like it Hot, prime example of film noir Double Indemnity, and films so poignant as The Lost WeekendThe Apartment and Sunset Boulevard. Also appealing to me is the absurdity (even silliness), dress-ups, mistaken identities and inversions in the films. And I’m so glad he developed a working relationship with Jack Lemmon. I fell in love with him all over again watching and re-watching those Wilder films. He just seems so nice. ❤  If you’d like to skip to the Wilder discussion, that starts at 25:30.

It was great to get to indulge in my passion for MOVIES! In fact, I’m a bit excitable on the podcast…

I hope you enjoy it. And thanks again to Lee and Paul for having me!

Can *I* have the key to your apartment?

Can *I* have the key to your apartment?

Bustin’ makes me feel good: Geek Mook

Geek Mook (Vignette Press) has now been released, with my essay ‘Bustin’ makes me feel good’. Can you guess what it’s about? Maybe the picture of me from the launch to the left here will help. Or this. Or this.

The Mook features stories, poetry and articles on everything ‘geek’-related, from Star Trek to coding, pro-wrestling, gaming, steam punk, Twitter, interactive fiction and much more. At the launch, eds Aaron Mannion and Julian Novitz translated Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ into Klingon. It was tres entertaining.

The Geek Mook is available via SPUNC, see here.

Update: buy the Geek Mook as an ebook from Booki.sh (browser) or Kobo (epub).

Marilyn Monroe died 50 years ago + my favourite books about Marilyn

I’ve been thinking about Marilyn, particularly because she was born in the same year as my grandmother who just passed away. My Nanna had a whole 50 years more of life. She wasn’t famous but she had a loving family (something Marilyn lacked and longed for). Arthur Miller said: ‘To understand Marilyn best, you have to see her around children. They love her; her whole approach to life has their kind of simplicity and directness.’

I’m trying to write something longer about these two women born in 1926. Today I just want to give a little nod to Marilyn, and direct you to some reading.

I fell for Marilyn in my teens. I related to the outward appearance—the smile, the sashay, the glow—masking insecurity and vulnerability. I felt for her, deeply. I’d dream about her (I still do), mostly just curling around her, skin soft and pale. Comforting her.

John Banville’s tribute in the Guardian is worth reading:

The fact is, she was one of the 20th century’s great clowns, whose clowning was intended not to make us laugh—though she was wonderfully funny—but to lose ourselves in fantasies of longing and desire. Other movie stars act the part of themselves, more or less convincingly; Marilyn created a wholly other version of herself, meant not to convince but to seduce. She was both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, and it is our constant, subliminal awareness of this duality that makes her such a fascinating and compelling creature, even still, 50 years after her death.

I like, too, how he quotes Shelley Winters. Winters was sympathetic to Marilyn. There are few figures in her life who were truly patient and understanding, and whose company she enjoyed, even if only for a time. Montgomery Clift was one. Lee Strasberg saw much in her that others refused to. Arthur Miller, unfortunately, lost his patience with her and she found out in the worst of ways, by coming across his notebook. That was devastating for her.

But I’m not an expert. I just adore her and like others who do I absorb information and construct my own version of her. I’m aware it may be as flawed as any other version.

I have a huge collection of Marilyn books. I want to share with you some of the highlights:

The Marilyn Encyclopedia
Adam Victor

A useful A-Z with entries on Marilyn’s friends, the people she worked with, the names of her films, quotes on different subjects, places she lived in or visited and entries like ‘mirrors’, ‘mental illness’, ‘sleep’, ‘cosmetic surgery’ and much more. Victor’s writing is engaging and he draws from many different sources. You can learn something about her just by flipping to any page. And there are plenty of pictures.

Marilyn: Norma Jeane
Gloria Steinem (photos by George Barris)

Gloria Steinem, as you may know, is a feminist writer, and this book was first published in 1986. Steinem begins by examining why the love for the star continues to bloom despite our ‘throwaway culture’. There are chapters titled: ‘work and money, sex and politics’, ‘fathers and lovers’ and ‘the body prison’, among others. This may be where I first learnt about something that was a huge impact on Marilyn’s life and only touched upon in other biographies. Marilyn suffered from such severe menstrual pain (as a small percentage of women do) that it may have been the initial cause of her reliance on drugs. It was more than likely that she had endometriosis, which was why she also had trouble conceiving (or carrying to term) a child. Overall this is a refreshing and sensitive biography, with many of the more natural pictures of her.

I also found this great video interview with Steinem, discussing Marilyn in relation to feminism, from just after the book was released. Check it out.

My Sister Marilyn: A Memoir of Marilyn Monroe
Berniece Baker Miracle and Mona Rae Miracle

Marilyn’s sister Berniece provides insight into Norma Jeane, and into the family history (including a history of mental illness). She stayed in touch with Marilyn over the years, and last saw her on a visit to Marilyn and Arthur Miller in Connecticut. Some intimate family photos are included.

 

Marilyn: The Story of a Woman
Kathryn Hyatt

A fictionalised graphic bio of Marilyn’s life. A great introduction if you’re a new fan. Well paced, and contains most of the well known events in her life. It has a lovely ending.

 

 

Marilyn Monroe
Barbara Leaming

This was the first full-length biography I read of Marilyn and though I can’t fully remember why, it remains my favourite. Others I’ve read are often written in a very sensationalised language, or are simply boring. This one is certainly full of drama (emotional, political and more) and I learnt a lot about Marilyn and her life. I’m sure Leaming doesn’t ‘victimise’ her too much, as some do. She provides a lot of detail, fleshing out each scene (with colours, smells, tastes and more) so we can experience it, including on the set of Marilyn’s films.

MM—Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe
Lois Banner (photographs by Mark Anderson)

This is a strange book. It’s basically photographs of items from Marilyn’s file cabinets. It fascinates me and creeps me out, mainly because it does fascinate me (and others) to stare at receipts, telegrams, fan letters, a sewing kit, newspaper cut-outs, business letters, her birth certificate, a lease, cheques and much more. Relics from the life of someone we didn’t know.

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe
ed. Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment

The best Marilyn book because it features her own words. Fragments that reveal her sensitivity, her intelligence, her sense of humour, and her pain.

‘for life:
It is rather a determination not to be overwhelmed.’

There’s also a picture in the back of some books from her private collection. They include Flaubert, Camus, Conrad, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Kerouac.

Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting
Bert Stern

A hardcover with every picture from Bert Stern’s final sitting with Marilyn, even the ones where she has crossed over the negatives. Incredibly revealing, a huge range of facial expressions and costumes. In some, Marilyn is clearly drunk or drugged. She plays sweet, funny, glamorous, sad, the child, the woman. Flaws and scars are visible. You could stare at them all day. I lay-byed this book at the Queensland Art Gallery shop when I was about 20 and my sister was living there. I’d send her a small amount each pay day to pay it off for me. It looks like it’s even rarer and more expensive now. But it’s so stunning. If you’re a Marilyn fan, it’s well worth saving up for.

Have you read any/many books about Marilyn? Do you have a favourite? I’m sure many more tributes will emerge over the next few days. Keep an eye on my Twitter feed and/or Facebook page for links.

LiteraryMinded does Sydney Film Festival 2012

I’m officially on holidays (though still doing some reviews etc.) and enjoying the Sydney Film Festival, good friends, whisky bars…

I’m not sure if I’ll blog (at length) about the fest. I’ve set two activities instead. The main one is to take something from the film I’ve just seen and write something creative from it. So from Just the Wind came a paragraph about a horse’s eyelashes. Moonrise Kingdom had me writing about a beach. I’ve written about a retired couple, a little girl who dances, and a woman who splits in two (after Faust). I’m really enjoying this activity, as creative stimulation. One of the pieces, so far, has potential to be something longer.

The other activity I’m undertaking is tweeting mini-reviews of the films, though only if I feel like it. I enjoy the challenge of giving an impression of a film in 140 characters (including the title and the #SydFilmFest tag). Here are a few:

Alexander Sokurov’s Faust: beautiful, grotesque, chattering madness. Appropriately bewildering. Loved it.

Moonrise Kingdom: super sweet, silly, aesthetically cohesive (of course). Lots of heart. A delight.

Vivan Las Antipodas: beautifully shot flip-sides of human & animal life on earth. Isolation + population. Earth/air/fire/water.

Death of a Japanese Salesman: how an organised, hard-working man approaches death. Heavy themes, a gentle touch. Tissues a must.

Around the sessions we talk about the films but we also talk about the audience. The pickle smell in the day sessions at Event Cinemas, the snoring patrons, the woman who sat next to G in Beasts of the Southern Wild last night and exclaimed oh my God literally every three minutes. The stylish misfits at Moonrise Kingdom. The women standing around talking about how strange it is that they’ve just spent time watching a confronting film about gypsies in Hungary (how strange of them to analyse something that isn’t strange). The day subscribers who lean into each other and ask how long the other has been coming: ten years, twenty years except for the year she was in Europe, forty years. The people who rustle and eat incessantly.

If you’re coming to Sydney for any reason, fit in a walk around the harbour in the sun, a visit to the MCA, food at Fratelli Fresh, and a scotch at Baxter’s. These things will take your mind off whatever is bothering you (like annoying audiences) and help you focus on the good stuff (like beaches and horse eyelashes).

Thoughts on Shakespeare and Anonymous

Are you a Stratfordian or an Oxfordian? For a long time I’ve avoided the debate around Shakespeare’s ‘true identity’. Partly because, like many people, I enjoy the romantic idea of the enigmatic genius. And partly because any debate around authorship (I believed) could potentially take away from the focus on, and the enjoyment of, the words themselves.

I never believed Shakespeare was a brand name for a conglomerate of writers (as some do) because there is too much symmetry across the body of work: through literary, rhetorical and dramatic devices; imagery and figurative language (use of analogy, different types of irony, metaphor, puns and symbols, to name a few); types of humour employed; and a certain self-awareness or meta-aspect (in many of the plays). I learnt a lot of this during an undergrad unit called ‘Shakespeare on Film’, one of the best subjects I’ve ever undertaken, and via a great book by Toby Widdicombe called Simply Shakespeare. I’ve always been more interested in the words, the drama and the stories than the idea of the author himself.

Funnily enough, the film Anonymous, which still attributes all the Bard’s works to one man (though not the man from Stratford-upon-Avon), is mainly about the ‘power of words’, and is still, definitely a celebration of the plays. Anonymous dramatises a theory which is held—not just by crackpots, but in many intellectual and academic circles—that the plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The film fleshes out this theory with the Earl’s desire to be a political influence on the people (for various reasons, I won’t spoil it). The Earl risks being arrested for treason if he exposes himself, and he first approaches Ben Jonson to put his names to the plays. Jonson baulks at the idea, and a boorish, illiterate actor called William Shakespeare steps up to the plate. Once Jonson begins to realise how incredible the plays are, he has a few regrets…

The film plays around with history (as we currently know it; a flexible thing it doth seem to be!). There are several inaccuracies, such as Essex being a threat to King James of Scotland (apparently he actually supported him), and the redating of the release of some of the plays to fit in with the story of the 1601 Essex Rebellion. Christopher Marlowe appears in 1598, when actually he died in 1593. James Shapiro explains a few of these inaccuaracies in his Guardian review (slight spoilers):

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that the author of the great plays is reduced to a political propagandist, his plays to vehicles to advance his faction’s cause. De Vere himself is quite clear about his literary objectives: “All art is political … otherwise it is just decoration.” He delightedly applauds his art’s propagandistic impact at a performance of “his” Henry V that so riles the patriotic mob that actors playing the French are physically assaulted. (No, this never happened.) He then mocks a political foe, William Cecil, as Polonius, in Hamlet. (The film conveniently forgets that when Hamlet was staged Cecil was already dead.) At the film’s climax, on the eve of the half-hearted Essex uprising in 1601, De Vere stages Richard III in order to win the crowd’s support for his faction. Enraged, playgoers swarm out of the theatre in mid-performance, heading to court, before they are brutally gunned down on Robert Cecil’s order. (No, this never happened either. Yes, the Chamberlain’s Men did stage a play before the abortive uprising, but it was Richard II, and it had no direct connection with subsequent events, unforeseen at the time of the performance. Because Anonymous so badly needs to reduce Richard III to a propagandistic attack on a hunchback Robert Cecil, the substitution is made. Yet Orloff told an interviewer last month that Anonymous “is unbelievably historically accurate … stunningly accurate”).

The rest of the review is full of spoilers, so read it only if you’ve seen the film (or won’t see it).

Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere

The film is fairly entertaining as a political thriller, and should be enjoyed as such, not as documentary. Many characters are introduced early on and if you don’t have at least a light grasp of English history (particularly royalty, religion, politics and customs of the time) a bit of extra concentration is required. Director Roland Emmerich has done an amazing job of recreating Elizabethan England. I was very impressed by the sets and effects. The actors are all adequate, and the best performances are Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth I (I would watch her in anything).

As the film does still attribute all of the works to one author I did find myself intrigued by the theory, as gappy and impossible to prove as it is. But, as I said, the film’s main theme, in the end, is the power of words, and that truly great works will last the test of time (no matter whose name is on them).

Willy taking the credit

If you are interested in the ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments—as to Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, being the real author—I found these two very convincing arguments commissioned by The Telegraph:

I first read ‘Yes, Shakespeare was a fraud’ by Oxford scholar and author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom Charles Beauclerk. He argues, among other things, that Shakespeare was possibly illiterate, that:

Like Hamlet, Oxford was a prince who had been sidelined. He distrusted the court’s Machiavellian machinations. From the age of 21 he adopted a unique signature, with a crown above his name and seven dashes below, indicating he thought of himself as the future King Edward VII. But he knew to keep his mouth shut. Instead he used drama—allegory—to assert his royal right.

Like Prince Hal, he was a bohemian prince ill at ease with his inheritance, who saw the actors and dramatists as his fellow truth-tellers. The themes that marked his life are the very themes that dominate Shakespeare’s work. Hamlet is essentially his autobiography.

Oxford knew the royal court, the milieu of Shakespeare’s plays. He was familiar with political events. The Stratford man’s life was a world away from this.

Then I read ‘No, Shakespeare was not a fraud’ by Professor Stanley Wells, honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and creator of 60 Minutes with Shakespeare. He says there are references to Shakespeare as a writer by at least 14 authors in his lifetime. He says:

Shakespeare’s authorship was not doubted until the 1850s when Delia Bacon, who ended up in an asylum, posited that the plays had been written by a committee of writers, including Francis Bacon (no relation). She wanted to open Shakespeare’s grave, as if there might have been a letter within saying: “It wasn’t me. Try Bacon.”

Since then, at least 77 people have been suggested as possible authors. It is absurd to think someone would write the world’s greatest plays and give someone else the credit.

The Earl of Oxford is the anti-Shakespeareans’ current favourite contender. He died in 1604 whereas the plays went on appearing until 1613. Oxfordians have to construct elaborate scenarios of concealment to explain this away.

What do you think? Does it matter? History and authorship are contentious and malleable concepts. The words and stories live on. You might say they are celebrated, some might argue they are abused, perhaps t’is neither here nor there. To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.

At the end of it all, life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What I don’t doubt is that whoever the author was, he (or maybe even she) was a phenomenally insightful and entertaining storyteller.

Anonymous has just been released on DVD and blu-ray in Australia

You might also enjoy some posts from my archives: I’ve visited the new Globe theatre twice now, including during my European jaunt last year, where we saw my favourite comedy Much Ado About Nothing (very briefly mentioned). In ‘Two Hamlets‘, in 2008, I looked at Branagh’s and Marsden’s versions of Hamlet. I’ve watched that Branagh version many times since.

Update: on the pro-Shakespeare side, was just sent this link, a #longread: Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous