The Last Tuesday Society

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Dolls, stuffed animals and skeletons

On Saturday I went with a friend to explore The Last Tuesday Society, a very curious museum tucked away in Mile End. It’s a dark, mysterious pit of a place, so I couldn’t get any photos inside, but some exhibits were:

Beautifully carved skulls, giant crab shells, dildos, mummified mermaid corpses, stuffed two-headed cats (and two-headed teddy bears on sale in the shop), skeletons of many animals, books of porn, broken dolls, tropical butterflies, many dead moles in a jar and some strange sculptures. It was very much the personal collection of a rich, artistic and slightly twisted eccentric. That eccentric is the still-living, party throwing artist called Victor Wynd. Wynd is a lecturer at the London Institute of Pataphysics (Pataphysics is what happens when artists get hold of science.)

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Spot the zebra unicorn and the blurry peacock

We also got to meet a number of living animals, such as chameleons, water dragons and snakes. I got to walk around the museum with a Nicaraguan Boa curled around my arm. I’ve not held a snake before, he was reassuringly heavy and mellow, and his skin felt pleasantly shiny and smooth; a beautiful animal.

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Insect Menu

Upstairs in the cafe, we spotted they sold insects to eat. This is something I’ve been curious about for a while – after all, if our global troubles with population with continue, we may have to start eating insects soon. We got the insect platter and chocolate worms. I have to be honest, I didn’t like the insects much, the flavour was ok, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was eating a load of insects, the texture was too papery and crispy, and just too much like I would expect a dead insect to be like. I also felt sort of guilty, there were so many of them, all those tiny lives snuffed out so that I could crunch on them feeling a bit sick. The chocolate was nice though.

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Crickets, worms and beetles. The middle object is a slice of banana with worms on.

 

Almost More Mystery Than You Can Handle

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Siddiebowtie is running a competition way more exciting than all those ‘nominate a hundred blogs and get them all to write an essay about what they did on their holidays’ competitions.

This competition has unknown rules!

– you have to make up your own and whoever gets it right wins.

It has unknown prizes!

possible prizes include a wooden testicle, an egg and an evil book.

You may never know if you’ve actually won it or not…

Although you might win a crafty object of delight!

And the post is really funny in the kind of delightful and ridiculous way that can only brighten your day.

Now I appreciate you’re busy, you have commitments, you just remembered you have to feed the goldfish and cut your toenails and put the Roomba out for the night. However, the significance of those things pale into comparison with this competition.

So, time to play

Siddiebowtie’s Mysterious Competition

I mean seriously, when was the last time you had some proper mystery in your life? Now’s the time folks, now’s the time…

Precious Books: Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book

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Created by Terry Jones (yes, that one) and Brian Froud, I discovered this book back when I worked in a pokey remainder bookshop on Charing Cross Road (I’m being dismissive, but I loved that shop). It is as the title suggests, a book of fairies, their images preserved like pressed flowers, squashed between the pages. It’s based loosely on the Cottingley fairies, which were photographs of fairies taken by two young children in the early nineteen hundreds, although in contrast to Lady Cottington’s fairies, those photos eventually turned out to be fake.

The text that accompanies the squashed fairies, is the handwritten diary entries of Lady Cottington, starting in childhood as she squashes the poor fairies between the pages of her notebook. The fairies (and goblins too) get their own back occasionally by taunting her, but sometimes it seems they actually want to be caught. The notes continue into her adulthood as the fairies continue to visit her and she struggles with being disbelieved by her family.

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I wanted to write a post about this book, even though it was published over twenty years ago, because there really isn’t anything else like it. The paintings of the fairies are delicate and bizarre; the writing is entertaining, and although it is difficult to like Lady Cottington, we get caught up in her adventures.

A brilliant idea executed in a perfect way.

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Because of I, Daniel Blake…

How our benefits system costs the tax payer more money

Last weekend I watched I, Daniel Blake (late to the party, as always). It was moving and beautiful, but I’m aware there are many people in this country who think that a film about benefits does not apply to them. So, using this film as inspiration, I wanted to point out a couple of things to those people:

Our benefit system is costing you more money by punishing claimants.

  1. The benefit system makes sick people sicker for longer, so they claim for longer.
  2. The benefit system creates benefit cheats.

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The benefit system makes sick people sicker for longer

We all know that stress is a killer, but stress also makes sick people more sick, so they can’t work, for longer. I had a brain injury, but what really prolonged my ability to get better was extreme stress. The stress was rooted in the accident, however, I didn’t show any symptoms of it until I tried to claim for benefits and that was clearly a trigger. One of the most stressful things you can experience is to have your survival in the hands of lying, incompetent people who don’t think of you as human. The film explores how this feels, how it destroys vulnerable people, breaks them down.

While claiming I found the system so relentlessly illogical and devoid of a duty of care that I became convinced that the government was trying to kill me, that was first sign of psychosis I experienced, after that it got worse. I was on benefits for six years, I think if I hadn’t been pushed to that point by the benefits system, if I could have relaxed, safe in the knowledge I was cared for and concentrated on recovery, I could have gone back to work in a year.

This may sound like a one off extreme experience (or maybe melodramatic), but it has happened to every genuinely sick person I have known who has tried to claim; because all illness, mental or physical, is made worse by stress. And everybody, no matter how ill, goes through the same system of being treated like a scrounger, lied to, tricked, dismissed.

Add to that the situations shown in the film – people being sanctioned and then not being able to eat properly or heat their home – all these things increase stress, prolong sickness and lead to the claimant needing benefits for much longer.

The benefit system works better for cheats than for the seriously ill – so the sick become cheats

The system is designed to be illogical and exhausting in order to put off benefit claimants. The problem with this is that benefit cheats have the mental and physical resources to deal with endless nonsensical and wrong instructions, they have the energy levels necessary to spend hours on the phone and they know the system so know just how to play it. People like Daniel in the film have never claimed benefits and don’t understand the system. They tell the truth (because they assume that is the right thing to do) and they are short on the strength necessary to play the game, all of which means they will not get money.

As a result, many seriously ill people give up trying, they rely on friends and family to survive or they kill themselves (see below for some  info about casualties). Dan sold his furniture and went hungry; and this is a seriously ill man who has just had a heart attack. I was lucky enough to understand computers (which Dan doesn’t) and I had a good friend to take over filling out forms and calling up advisers. Even with this help, I learnt that if I was to get money to live, I needed to change how I acted. Honesty and doing what I was asked to do, simply didn’t work. So I learnt to lie and cheat and manipulate, and that was how I got the money I needed to live.

Which is where the problem lies for the tax payer: The benefits system creates cheaters because honest people don’t get money. And being a cheater doesn’t just go away when you get better. If you have ever had someone repeatedly screw you over when you are at your most vulnerable you will perhaps understand: it changes you, it creates a cynicism and an anger that don’t vanish, and cynical, angry people, who have learned to work the system, aren’t good for society.

 

This blog was originally going to be a review, but there are plenty of excellent reviews about this important film and I had nothing helpful to add. In case you missed them…

Some facts about the system:

And finally a quote taken from the review above:

“I must emphasise one point. I, Daniel Blake is not a “poverty flick”, nor even a film about poverty. It’s about dignity, about society recognising you as a human being and not as a number. It’s about the relationships we create with one another to save us dying from state-imposed loneliness. The way we treat people on benefits becomes a metaphor for our society’s radical failure to recognise the humanity in others.”

Inside the House of Dreams: an adventure

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Yesterday I explored the House of Dreams, the museum/home/art installation of artist Stephen Wright. A tangled delight of junk, jumble, thoughts and images hiding behind a blue gate in Dulwich, London. The museum is only open a few days a year and photos can only be taken of the front garden, so what you see here is a fragment. I think that’s for the best though, photos could never give you the experience: the chance to explore, touch and be surrounded by the contents of the house.

A colourful jungle, absolutely crammed full of ephemera and words, the house contains powerful messages about love and loss, but also about acceptance of the self. Stephen has woven his thoughts and experiences into a visual adventure that others can share, telling a tale of love, grief and defiance.

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Part of what makes this house special is that the artist and his partner, Michael, both spend time talking to visitors one to one. I think I was my usual nosy, odd self and asked lots of questions, but both were patient and I learned first hand about how the house came into being and a little of what it means. I was also able to ask about why it was called the House of Dreams. For Stephen and his previous partner Donald the name was arrived at organically. It grew, like the house did, out of a random idea coming to life. For me, the name has real significance, tied into my understanding of what dreams are.

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When I had the brain injury (gone on about here) I had many dreams, and in a few ways they were like this house: vivid, crowded and stayed lodged in my thoughts throughout the day. I decided then that dreams are the brain’s way of frantically sorting through information in order to make sense of it and learn from it. From tiny irrelevant details of a TV show to complex emotions, the unconscious brain spends the quiet time at night filing and connecting at random each nugget of your life, testing one against another until each is finally slotted into place. My dreams were my brain’s way of sorting through my own experience of death and illness. This house seems like Stephen’s more external way of doing the same, it enabled him to process intense grief (he lost his partner and both parents in a very short space of time). It uses the same random juxtaposition of dreams: putting a sculpture showing his feelings about his father’s death next to a collection of brightly coloured bleach bottles; hair curlers next to diary entries. Walking through the house was a little like walking through someone else’s dreams.

One of the most powerful messages I got from the house was to be fearless with who you are. To boldly be who no one can else can be. There is  a lot of pressure to hide our oddities, and as someone who can weird people out quite easily, I tend to tuck the messy edges of my personality out of sight. That’s an easier way to interact in society, but art is not about behaving and being normal; art should be the explosion of the self, the unfeterred release of who we are. Mostly I write fiction and I’m always adamant that I don’t write about me in my stories; but it’s important also that I don’t distance myself from what I write, that I don’t sketch half-hearted thoughts, but instead throw myself into the eye of the storm. That is certainly the inspiration I’ll take from this house.

More info, videos and pictures here. If you ever have the chance to visit the house on one of the open days then you really should. We live in mass produced, largely blank and repetitive world, the chance to see something unique and as inspiring as this is well worth the effort.

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Gone Girl – A Tale of Abuse

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There’s been plenty written about Gone Girl, about whether it is feminist, anti-feminist, post-modern and so on, but I’ve not seen anyone talking about how it seemed to me – a story of domestic psychological abuse. The victim in the story is worn down, isolated and humiliated while the abuser is manipulative, controlling and demanding. However, this is not seen as a story of domestic violence because the victim is a man.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, the tale is of a woman who marries her ‘perfect’ man and then tries to change him. When he doesn’t change in the way that she wants, she slowly destroys him; then disappears and frames him for her murder. The book is about him trying to prove his innocence.

At first when they get together, Amy pretends to be someone she’s not  (the ‘cool girl’) and when her real personality comes out – uptight, bitchy, controlling – he doesn’t like it and she takes this as a rejection and betrayal, for which he must be punished. From Amy’s point of view, she is the wronged party (which is common with abusers), she doesn’t accept that she started the relationship with a lie. Everything he does is taken as a slight. She sets him tests that he can only fail, and then instead of discussing it with him, she acts hurt; putting the blame for a situation she created, onto him. He learns to be constantly wary of letting her down, but her moods are so unpredictable, he can’t avoid getting things wrong. She isolates him from the people he loves, she belittles him until he starts to doubt himself. She slowly and deliberately breaks him, so that he becomes emotionally numb and dependent on her as the only one who can make him feel. If the genders were reversed, there would be no doubt that this was a well-written tale of abuse.

What set me thinking about this again was seeing a friend a few days ago. This friend has been in an abusive relationship now for over a decade. His wife is like Amy, in that she has a need to be perfect and believes that she is and he is not, so he must change. She insults him in front of his friends, shoves and pokes him, and blackmails him (if you leave me you’ll never see the kids again). Some of his friends think she’s a bitch, but no one acknowledges that this is abuse. Crucially, he doesn’t recognise this as abuse, and is now so worn down believing himself to be deserving of her scorn, that he can’t walk away.*

I think we are reaching a point where it is acknowledged that domestic violence can include women being violent towards men, but psychological abuse towards men is never labelled as such,and is even made a joke of. If a relationship is manipulative and isolating, and involves the slow destruction of one person’s psyche, then it is abuse.

More disturbingly, women are often encouraged in society to change the man they love. Instead of pursuing their own ambitions, they are expected to live out their dreams through their male partner. I’d have hoped this would have changed now that women have careers and passions outside the home, but it still seems to be a normal part of society. Of course, we all want to change small things about the ones we love when flaws affect us: persuading your partner to be a little more careful with money or a bit tidier; but these should always be minor details in a relationship built on genuine love and respect for who the other person is. And it’s a two-way street, a discussion, not a demand. If you genuinely don’t think someone is good enough for you, if you don’t respect their hopes for the future, then don’t marry them. Trying to ‘change your man’ to fit your own ideal is abusive.

My friend’s wife recently said to him,

“You were always intended as a project. I married you because I thought I could make you into something great. You’ve failed me.” To her, this is completely reasonable. Sadly, he now sees it the same.

Until we recognise that women can be perpetrators of abuse and that that abuse does not have to include violence, there will be no chance of stopping it. If we want equality then we must recognise that men can be vulnerable and that a relationship is about mutual respect and acceptance of each other’s failings, as well as a celebration of our differences. I think Gone Girl highlighted this brilliantly, it seems a shame that no one picked up on it.

*I feel I need to explain, my friend is not a submissive or weak man, he has always been funny, confident and tough. To look at him you would never think him a victim. I’ve found this is often the case with abused women also, it seems that if you and everyone else believe you can’t be a victim, then you are more likely to become one. Perhaps because your abuser’s interpretation that they are the victim fits better with your belief that you are strong.

TV Review: Stranger Things

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Stranger Things

I’ve just finished watching the surprise hit series of Stranger Things and it was great. There’s been a lot of talk about why it’s good (Oh look it’s set in the 80s! Wow, it’s like a science fiction Stand by Me!) but I have a feeling people are getting it wrong. I think the story is exciting, but not particularly unusual (girl with magic powers, monsters from a strange world, MK Ultra scientists) and there are plenty of less successful series with similar elements, so I believe it has something else that people relate to, and I will try to explain what I think that is, here…

What’s great about it

  1. The characters aren’t just copies of other TV characters. There are plenty of tropes in there – the dumb jock, the nerdy boys, the weirdo loner, the good girl who falls for the dumb jock – but each character gets to defy the rules and this makes them seem more like real people. Some of the defiance is dramatic and delightful, such as good girl Nancy being kick arse with monsters. Some of it is quite small, such as little comments or expressions, but these small differences help give us a sense of the characters as proper humans. This also makes the series scarier because we genuinely empathise with the characters’ fear and want them to survive.
  2. It has real energy. I think this comes from the three boys, Dustin especially, but all of them to some extent. They charge around on their bikes, they get angry and shout, they come up with many plans, and they do all of it with such genuine enthusiasm that I find myself getting caught up in their excitement. By the time they reach the big monster showdown, I’m giddy with the drama and rooting for them.
  3. It has heart. Or rather, the characters do. I’m not talking the romantic plotlines, which follow predictable patterns, but the friendships between the four boys and eventually with Eleven. Also missing boy’s mum, Joyce (Winona Ryder) not only slings aside all pretence at sanity in order to find her child, but also the heartfelt scene where she reassures Eleven that she will be there for her. None of these moments feel insincere.

These three elements don’t read as particularly significant, but because they tend to be missing from most television, they make the series stand out.

What TV usually does

  1. All characters are unsurprising. TV characters have been copying other characters for decades now, in a process of ever diminishing returns. The result is a gradual simplification through repetition, until we have just a few possible characters with a very narrow range of behaviour. This doesn’t only involve the repetition of personality types that don’t exist much in real life (eg. The pretty but tough female cop who’s vulnerable underneath it all, the unnecessarily macho and wisecracking male) but goes right down to details like facial expressions (people on TV have very few), actions (also fewer than in real life, mostly just running, fighting, kissing and realising stuff) and normal conversations (there are none). Stranger Things only broke a few of these rules, but that was unusual enough to make it stand out.
  2. A lot of TV has a blankness to it. People run about, try to kill each other, cry and so on, but they’re missing energy, the feeling of genuine intent. I think a big part of this is the lack of facial expressions named above. The Killing (Danish version) totally flabbergasted me when I watched it, because of the range and depth of emotions that the characters showed; sometimes several emotions at once, just like real people. It was like listening to a symphony after only ever hearing a kazoo. Stranger Things doesn’t have quite that range, but characters like Dustin and Eleven both shone out. Eleven for the subtlety of what she was feeling, and Dustin for the sheer gleeful abandon that he showed. TV characters never show gleeful abandon, they’re too busy trying to look moody and detached.
  3. Characters have compassion for the other main characters only. I’m not saying that every character should be bursting into tears every time any stranger suffers, but they don’t even say thank you when someone has helped them or show polite sympathy when someone is unhappy. Most of the time they barely interract, it’s as if all subsidiary characters are only there to serve the plot and humanity is irrelevant. Which is fine, it’s TV, but it means that when characters do show genuine heart, it is incredibly effective, it makes us love them.

What is frustrating is that when a series, such as this one, breaks the format and is popular as a result, producers try and reproduce its success by copying exactly the wrong things. They look at Stranger Things and think ‘People want monsters! And 80s pastiches!’ They look at The Killing and think ‘People want a moody female detective and dead people!’

However I think what people want is to see characters that surprise them, that they are able to form a genuine affection for because they actually seem human instead of blank replicas with only the emotional range of smileys.