Sunday, 31 August 2008

Can anecdotes cross borders?

On a summer break in Dubrovnic I picked up at the airport the local ex-pat newspaper, The Dubrovnik Times, which ran to about 8 pages and had ads for the tourists as well as general articles by ex-pats such as one by a man from America who came for a holiday eight years ago and decided to stay. I am familiar with ex-pat living after spending some years living in Asia, and many of my travel destinations are determined by where a friend may have a posting, or a love affair with a local that never ended, or an English teaching job where the perks are worth more than the pay or conversely the pay is worth the pain of separation from family and friends. The ex-pat straddles two cultures – some pretty comfortably some not.

Ex-pats are often a jaded mob who hang out at foreigners’ bars to whinge about the locals; yet when they go back home they can only talk about their foreign experiences until they are avoided in their local as a bore. Soon enough they realize they can’t handle normal life in their native country and so they pack up and go back to their adopted country to resume their old place at the foreign bar, greet their cronies and give each other knowing looks when a newbie rolls up, a reflection of themselves long ago.

There are many flavours of ex-pat. There are the regular business travellers (who are honorary ex-pats); there are the diplomats and businessmen on postings and their spouses (upper class ex-pats); there are the ones who marry a local and can’t speak a word of the language (parasite ex-pats); there are the geeky more-native-than-the-natives types (gone troppo ex-pats); there are lots of ones on one or two year deals (only just ex-pats) and shady characters on the make (tax-dodge ex-pats). These guys (and they are usually guys) hang out in ex-pat bars the world over, talking complete crap to each other about what they understand or don’t understand about the country before trying to pick up a local girl.

At the same time the ex-pat bars are host to locals who like to hang out with the ex-pats, who are either curious about foreigners or more usually wanting to practice their English language skills. These girls (and they are usually girls) hang out in ex-pat bars the world over trying to comprehend the difficult pattern of conversation not covered in their usual English language text books while trying to either fend off or encourage the attention of the know-it-all ex-pats.

Almost all ex-pats will have a large part of their identity defined by being in that foreign culture and having to cope with the adjustments of living there. They try explaining to friends back home what it is like, about not having comforts they are used to and dealing with bureaucracy, taxes and service, cultural misunderstandings, language difficulties, climate and comfort differences, and so on, but no one understands – unless they are an ex-pat too.

Every traveller can appreciate the surface differences, such as funny looking money, alternative hygiene practices, differences in the cost of living and how some things are so much easier back home. However, it is the more nuanced aspects of different cultures that characterises the ex-pat experience above and beyond the travellers’. You don’t really know a country until you have worked in a foreign office, shopped locally, and most of all tried to crack a joke in a second tongue.

My friend Australian friend met her German husband in Bali at a swim-up bar in a hotel pool. After chalking up expensive phone bills she decided to visit him in Hamburg and that was that, she is now married and bringing up a half German half Australian little boy. She told me that her German language skills were quite rough when she first arrived. She had studied some German at school and even lived in Germany for a while on exchange, but it is a very different thing when you live and work there.

Moving there was the hardest thing she has ever done. The emotional strain of being far from her family was hard enough on its own, but she has had to set herself up financially and emotionally with a partner from a very different culture – she hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be just to fit in.

Her husband has a close circle of friends with a 20-year store house in-jokes and assumed knowledge between them. Her German was improving in leaps and bounds, but joking in a foreign language is a skill that takes years to develop.

English people like to say Germans have no sense of humour. Whilst it’s true that Germans are fond of a straight answer, keeping their word and firmly committing to a plan of action, they are also fond of beery conversation – much of it humorous.

My friend found that conversation between friends in Germany has a different pattern to conversations in Australia. Her husband says English language chat is like ping pong – the conversation leaping from one end of the table to another, everyone constantly interjecting, with jokes and put-downs, asking questions, diverting the topic, coming back to it again and so on.

In Germany, she says, at least in her husband’s circle of friends, it’s different. The participants as if by design seem to come to the table with ready-made stories to tell. The stories can be long or short, significant or trivial, on a personal or a topical event. The story might be a serious political story from the newspaper or more often about something that happened to them at the petrol station on their way to the BBQ.

When the person tells their story there is a neat set-up, complication and punch line. Anyone can interject to clarify a point, but it is not done to divert them from their story and it is expected that the speaker will reward the listeners with a rounded narrative so that on queue at the end they can laugh or be shocked or express disbelief. Her most terrifying time at the table is when the turn comes around to her, she can just about follow the fluent German tales in full flow, but she has not mastered the rhetorical skills necessary to take the floor.

I noticed in the Dubrovnik newspaper an article where two tourists – a German man from Freiberg and an English woman from Inverness – were. The questions asked how long were they staying in Dubrovnik (both for about a week), what did they enjoy (the fortified walls, the crystal clear water) what did they buy (the English woman not much, the German man said he bought beer) and so on.

The last question asked of them was if they had any stories to tell or unusual experiences in Dubrovnik. The Scottish woman said the first person she had met in Dubrovnik happened to be from Aberdeen! Imagine that! The German man said he had brought his dog on holidays with him and when he arrived there was another dog on the pier and it had scared him so much he had run into a shop, much to the amusement of the locals.

Reading these two little stories you know they are the ones the two tourists will tell friends, neighbours and work colleagues when they get back to their home towns. It comes back to me how the strangest thing about travelling is how much you take where you are from with you on the plane. And when you come back again, you automatically shape the exotic background around a tale that could be understood and appreciated by your audience. They could easily say when it is their turn, you know, something similar happened to me when I travelled abroad.

Don’t Mention the War (Still)

Its summer and the British and the Germans are at war. The big guns are their respective tabloid newspapers. The opening salvos are puns on Huns in the Sun newspaper answered by pokes at British bums in the German paper Bild. The message is clear – the two nations are still at war, though today the battle ground is claiming the prime deck chair positions by the hotel pool.

It’s true; Basil Fawlty is alive and well and still unsuccessfully trying not to mentioning the war. It is truly astounding how often the subject of the second world war comes up in England, in the media, in conversation, or with physical reminders in the landscape, it could have been just a few years ago instead of over 50. As a recent immigrant it is impressed upon me how the trauma of the war is still keenly felt today.

In November every single presenter on British TV, and I do mean every single one, has a plastic poppy pinned to their lapel, it seems to be a rule that if you are on TV in a factual position (like a news presenter, or a politician, as opposed to a character in a drama who are allowed occasionally to get away with a naked lapel) then you must wear one or you will not be allowed on screen until December 1st.

With the war in Iraq there is renewed public respect for soldiers and the charity that supports them, but for most people wearing The Poppy means they are not forgetting long dead soldiers from long past wars. On the first of November people stick on their plastic poppy with a pride that borders on mania and those who do not sport one at all times feel ashamed and scuttle past the Poppy police at the entrance to the supermarket shaking their charity coin collectors menacingly at them.

It is curious to witness this behaviour – it is every every English person’s duty to wear The Poppy. Just as it is every Christian’s penance to carry the cross (perhaps embossed with diamonds on a chain around the neck). Both symbols say: We will remember Him/Them. Both are powerful symbols indeed.

In Manchester the IRA bomb that obliterated the central shopping district in the late 1990s should, you would think, warrant frequent mention, but it doesn’t. It transformed the city centre, and it could be argued did the city a lot of good as it is now a gleaming Mecca for shoppers who appreciate the large scale open spaces, connected walkways and shiny new buildings. This bomb was preceded by a warning and no loss of life resulted, so would seem that the impact of the bomb was economic rather than tragic in the long term. It could also be argued that it was a local event, Birmingham has its own IRA bomb, for example, not to mention those in Northern Ireland, so it had only a local impact, but the impact is not felt much today at all, it is not mentioned in conversation and there are no annual days of rememberance.

The London bombings of July 2005 although more recent has also had a diminished impact; the loss of life was devastating, and although the bombs specifically targeted the capital the whole country felt the shock keenly, but the feelings stirred by these acts of terrorism are very different to the collective reaction to World War 2. It is probably too early to judge the long term unsettling effects of the London bombs; it is far too raw and with the war in Iraq still going on, it is still an open sore. But despite how these bombs were only recent, and despite how they were on British soil, the bombs have not impacted on the British consciousness the way the world wars half a century ago have done.

Perhaps time is the key. Everyone has had time to think about World War 2, they have thought and thought and thought about it. The diggers of the Great War have all passed away, but many veterans of the Second War are still alive, some still remembering the effects of the first war as well as the second and able to tell their grandchildren about it and record their memoirs in the different forms of media. There are ample opportunities to investigate one aspect or another, including all the bits that were forgotten the first time around, the people who contributed in quieter days or the secrets that were only just allowed to come out after a 50 year ban. The second world war is at an almost ‘golden’ age in its assessment and importance to people’s everyday lives here, in a way I don’t think it is in Australia or America.

Germany, however, and Japan too are still very much thinking about the consequences of the war and dealing with it in their different ways. Japan has the old guard of revisionists and nationalists deeply influencing conservative politics, particularly with symbolic visits to the Yasakuni shrine. Japan is also still contending with the deep, deep wound of the atomic bomb, when so much of the world sees nuclear power as benign and nuclear weapons as something vaguely associated with the shrouded countries of Iran or North Korea. (Now that Russia and China have become economic powerhouses and now that the price of oil has gone through the roof the baby boomer anti-nuclear hippies of the world are like the rest of us more interested in energy and wealth than ideology.)

In Germany the topic of the war is carefully avoided with strangers. The emotions, memory and guilt are so complicated that casual reference is frowned upon; it is too difficult a subject to chat about with foreigners. The importance of the war and its impact is felt there physically, dramatically in the reconstruction of their cities out of rubble.

As ‘losers’, Japan and Germany the war led to long term introspection (though, curiously Italy is not really mentioned so much in English media, the axis is more of an axel when it comes to the popular imagination).

But England seems to have a similar obsession with the war even though they were ‘winners’. Britain seems to be hung up on it like Japan and Germany and in a different way to the other Allies. (Perhaps it has as big an impact in France where they had to deal with the fall out from occupation as well with the sorting of the reviled collaborators from the pride of the Resistance. Or perhaps they moved on and had a good meal and a bottle of wine. Not knowing French, I couldn’t judge.)

I know that here in Britain the war is mentioned often, sometimes casually, tauntingly to Germans and Italians in football games, on TV by comedians, or mumbled under breaths by the hotel pool. Other times it is considered in depth in countless books in countless ways. Sometimes the British are proud of their victory, sometimes they are deeply conflicted by it. There is a complication to the feelings it arouses that it doesn’t seem to have in the hearts and minds of America. America is tortured by Vietnam, not by World War 2.

Last year I read a biography of the Mitford Girls. I had never heard of them before I picked it up, but now I hear them mentioned all over the place, particularly one of the Mitford Girls – Unity – who was bizarrely enamoured with Hitler and recently rumoured to have carried his love child. This was aired on TV as a scandal, because imagine – Hitler’s child could be living here amongst us! The child would be middle-aged by now, but to the English the thought is delicious. Just imagine – Hitler’s child! It has the impact a holy visitation would have in the religious deep south of America (and yes, I know the analogy is sacrilegious). Hitler is a figure of fascination; he is almost mythic to the British, but not of course in a good way.

The English remember the rationing of the post-war period to this day, they feel some annoyance that the Americans lived such lives of abundance post war while they had bananas rationed for a decade. I was at a tennis club quiz the other week and one of the questions asked what was rationed until 1953 (I think that was it – I will surely be corrected if it is wrong!) and the answer was sweets – although most people at the quiz smacked their foreheads because they wrote bananas instead. The point being that rationing is a concept even the children at the quiz knew about.

Indeed, my boyfriend’s niece was in the school play entitled ‘Will Santa be shot down?’ I asked if it was a comedy, and she shook her head, ‘No!’ she said, ‘It is about World War Two and a little boy who was frightened Santa would be shot down by German airplane fire’. Which I thought was pretty heavy for a child’s Christmas play in 2007.

Every child born in a new century here knows about the bombing campaign of the World War 2 German fighters (just as presumably every German child knows about the Allies bombing their towns). Indeed the effects of the air raids can be seen even in my street today. The house we live in is not in keeping with its neighbours, it was built in the 1950s in contrast to the Edwardian semis opposite because a fat bomb landed right here sometime during the war. It is this palpable physical evidence that drives home the impact of the unforgotten war; it is was so much more immediate here than the experience of Australians or Americans (and I don’t think the Pearl Harbour or Darwin bombings really come close despite the American movie of the former).

World War Two meant an end of an era to the British – the end of Empire, the end of being the biggest of the major players on the world stage, it meant misery for many, suffering, it meant pride in overcoming the odds, and it was Britain’s finest hour - which does have a final ring about it.

Perhaps in a few years these sentiments will have changed irrevocably for Britain. The change was in the air with the 50 year anniversary of the war’s end, and the new millennium with new obsessions with new computers and terrorists to worry about. But more likely it won’t. The War is still with us and will be for a while longer yet.

My boyfriend, would happily argue for hours that it was WW1 that was the key war, not the second, saying it was the one that ended Empire, the one that saw the end of innocence when so many were slaughtered in the trenches, the one that set the agenda for both modern Europe and modern America. He also says that the origins of the war is complex and fascinating and that the second war that followed on its heels is just boring by comparison with its easy reduction to Us versus the nasty Nazis.

I would argue that it is this good versus evil comparison which makes the war so fresh in people’s minds, Hitler as the Devil on Earth is comprehensible in a way that the messy Vietnam War or the where-exactly-is-it Falklands War for the modern sensibility, not to mention the current Afganistan/Iraq debacle. For America WW2 was a defining moment when it became the leader of the western world, so Indiana Jones fights Nazis in the 1980s and a whole new generation of kids can cheer for the good guys in the movies they way they couldn’t in the scarier Vietnam films of the 70s. Those kids have grown up and have kids of their own who are all carefully learning about the world wars of half a century ago in history classes in school.

It is understandable why the Americans would want to Save Private Ryan again and again, but what about the British, didn’t the aftermath of the war when the baton passed to America mean that they had dropped their own? Post war it was pretty miserable here, so why does everyone want to remember it all the time? Was it in fact the last great hurrah of Empire? Or is there something in the British psyche which revels in the desperation, privation, exhaustion and broken pieces of the post war era? Britain hugely enjoyed the swinging sixties, but it was the 40s that people here remember with pride and nostalgia. The trauma has not healed, every November the Poppies are pinned to lapels and the wound ripped open again.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Sea change

A sea-change in my own personal blogosphere will hopefully mean that there might be some more posts in the future.

I would like to polish up my writings and ramblings into entertaining and well-rounded blog posts, but the problem is that I never get around to all the editing required. I have blogs from last year sitting around clogging up my computer and my conscience. I devoted some time to knocking out a first draft, and then I never get around to it again until I am in the position where I have moved house and had a baby and not a peep is heard from me from months on end.

So, without more apology I am going to put up some blogs that are dated and unedited for the sake of posterity.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Sorry To Have Missed You

I have been a bit slack with the blogging for a couple of months. I have been busy with Christmas and the new house and my dramatically changing body shape. The blogs have been brewing on all these topics, and this blog may well open the flood gates. So stay tuned.

Let me restart with the curious subject of how impressed I am with the post code system in the UK. The codes here mix digits and letters to clearly indicate your social-economic demographic through exact geographic positioning. The first half of the code tells the curious which county and then which town or suburb within it. This is great for snobs, insurance companies and real estate agents.

The second part of the code goes even further towards explicit disclosure; it picks out which precise street you live on and even which end of the street, sometimes which side. This is a bit startling. If someone knows your postcode it wouldn’t take much to stalk you or steal your identity. But, hey, the up side is that it is nifty for home services and deliveries.

Every delivery company asks you first your postcode and then the number of your house and then click, they have you locked in their sights. On websites you can enter your postcode and pick your house from a drop down list. My new cleaner asked for my postcode which she could pop into her car’s satnav. The postcode system was clearly anticipating the age of the database. I know I am easily impressed, but I marvel at the forethought.

In contrast my home town in Australia has four digits for a postcode used by all 45,000 plus people living there. Hong Kong is even more shocking, they have no postcodes at all. This used to cause problems for some international online shopping orders where they demanded a postcode in their forms and wouldn’t process the order until I put in zeros or x’s to satisfy them.

My hat is off to the HK post office. I have no idea how they can cope with a mail system for 6 million people without any codes, especially as they deal with mail addressed in handwritten in Chinese, English and Pilipino.

And yet it somehow works (well, at least I never had a problem). In fact, I once sent a postcard to a new Hong Kong friend from a hotel in Vietnam when I knew only her first name and that she worked in a distinctive tall building in Central district on Hong Kong Island. She has kept the card to this day, impressed as much as I was that it somehow got to her mailbox.

I don’t know how Hong Kong as a former British colony, and one that embraced British bureaucracy enthusiastically in so many quarters, failed to institute a postcode system. It is even more astounding that it works for them while over here with a deadly accurate system I have had no end of problems with my mail.

Christmas was a nightmare when it came to receiving parcels. I can readily appreciate that the postal system is overloaded at Christmas time, but nevertheless not one of my anticipated parcels arrived without some sort of protracted bother.

Some of this should be laid at my own door. I did get a bit overenthusiastic with my online shopping in the mistaken belief that it would save me from the hassle of real, physical shopping. I ordered bits and bobs from a half dozen different companies over the net, fretting the whole while about credit card security when the real problem was with delivery.

I prefer to start work late and end work late which suits my sleep/work pattern but does not seem to suit the postman at all. I never know whether to opt for parcels to be delivered to work where I will be most of the day or to the house where I drag out my breakfast until mid-morning. I have tried self-posting to both options and whichever way I go I always manage to miss the parcel and get one of those delightful Sorry We Missed You cards where the scribbled time can occasionally be deciphered so that I can ruefully note I was just ten minutes too late.

When I get those cards two days in a row it has me beating my head against the bricks because I know what will follow. First I first have to call one of those numbers where a recorded voice tells me to press three then one then some 10 digit code on the card which fails to compute meaning I get through to a human, usually on a different continent, who informs me I am about to take a demoralizing car trip to one of Manchester’s dreariest industrial parks to a depot to retrieve the parcel.

Ooh, I hate those cards; but much worse than getting the card is getting no card. This happened over Christmas where parcels sent by my mother 8 weeks previously had still not shown up by end of January. Despite the much admired postcode being clearly and legibly written on them in my Mum’s best school teacher writing, they still managed to get lost in the system.

The people in the system were very polite and were trying to be genuinely helpful. After speaking to the postman, the depot, and finally some help centre online, and thanks to the fact that Mum kept the receipt in Australia which preserved some precious 10 digit codes, the final two parcels were eventually located.

One had been held at a post office a couple of miles away, for some strange reason, instead of my local. That one was easily retrieved (helpfully they gave me the post office’s postcode so I could pop it into Google Maps and plot a satnav course to find it); but the other parcel took a bit more sleuthing.

The parcel was apparently signed for by someone called ‘F. Sidebottom’. I pondered this for a bit, did it mean ‘the front side bottom’? Did that mean they left it somewhere under a rock at the side or the bottom of a wheelie bin and given me a cryptic clue ala The Da Vinci Code?

I asked my boyfriend and he told me there was a local comedic character with an act where he insisted his name Frank Sidebottom was pronounced ‘Frank Sid-ee-bott-om’. He suggested someone somewhere must have signed for it with this joke name. Chances are I would never see the parcel again.

I was psyching myself up to start a door knocking / letter campaign to get to know the immediate neighbours when my email correspondent from the post office suggested I try Flat 4 next door.

That very night I buzzed Flat 4, and lo and behold the guy is in, he trips down the stairwell with my parcel and finally I had it in my little hot hands! I was so grateful that I decided not to berate the guy for having kept it for four long weeks without bothering to knock on my door to return it to me. But I guess he didn’t know I hadn’t received my Sorry To Have Missed You Card and what’s more he probably thought me rude for not showing proper gratitude. (Proper gratitude is very important here.)

Upon reflection, I could have called back around and thanked him for adding to my little store of local knowledge by introducing me to the legend of Frank Sidebottom, but instead I celebrated by opening my Christmas presents a month late.

It is pretty weird to open Christmas presents long after the tree has been put away again for another year and all the silliness has been processed and you wondered why you were so worked up about it all. Besides, there was something anti-climatic about opening presents when Mum had already told me what was inside, thinking they were lost in the ether of the great postal neverland.

Not that I want to sound ungrateful, it was just that the epic tracking of the parcel had eclipsed the contents. After everything was unwrapped I found inside the box a note from Mum telling me to expect more parcels for my birthday in February. Oh no, not more parcels! The merry-go-round starts again.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Bless the BBC box set!

After discovering a seemingly inexhaustable supply in the local library we have been trawling through the back catalogue of BBC petticoat serials the last couple of weeks allowing me to catch up on all the worthy English novels of the accepted cannon that I will never read. I know, I know, I should have read Middlemarch, but when it is covered in a couple of entertaining hours on your TV on a winter's eve, really, it is hard to say no and reach for the paper tome instead.

Especially when they are such weighty tomes. I have known for along time that I will never attempt another Dickens after my one and only valiant attempt at 'The Pickwick Paper' (not the best choice) was derailed by other entertainment options too readily at hand. My Dad, a solicitor, has sailed many references over my head to 'Jaundice versus Jaundice', but now, after watching the BBC's excellent Bleak House I know I can give him a knowing wink without having had to balance the book on my knee for a month or two.

It is all down to a one-man revolution for me - Mr Andrew Davies. I have read somewhere online that personally he may be a tad arrogant or other such criticism, but ever since the watershed moment when I saw the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, yes, the one with Colin Firth in the wet shirt, I have been a fan, even if I didn't know it at first.

The art of TV adaptation is curious - it is creative, but it is also slavish - the writer has to balance the essential themes and characters of the novel with the particular dictates of the medium. TV serials allow a greater allotment of time for the writer to include more of the characters and incidents that would have to be sidelined by a movie, but the ability to know what to keep and what to cut is a fine art. It is enlightening to read Austen's novel, then watch all of, is it 6 or 8 hours, of Davies' BBC version, and then watch the latest movie offering, the one with Kiera Knightley.

This is not an exercise that my boyfriend would ever, ever embark upon, it would probably be the most effective torture for him, more effective than having his bollocks bashed ala the latest James Bond film. But for me, as an unabashed Austen fan, well, OK, a little abashed, I found it illustrated the differences between adapting for film and for TV very nicely.

The book has so much detail, of course, being a book, but it also has the peculiarities of that particular era of the novel - loats more description than we can stomach these days with our airplane book tastes, far more introspection and moralising as well, and then a huge dose of pathetic fallacy, repetition and an extended denoument which has much to do with the fact that the original author and audience for the book had no TV, video games or internet to distract them from a decent lengthy book. The original book also didn't have much in the way of sex scenes, or even extended kissing scenes, the big climax in the book is, if I remember rightly more in the way of an ardent long look in the eyes with the couples' hands clasped. That's it.

So for electronic mediums for a modern audience this aspect has to be beefed up. I remember reading Mansfield Park in school (which was at the time deadly dull and only completed by reading a chapter and then rewarding myself with a dose of TV before the next session - eyes propped open with matchsticks). But in the film version the naughty daughter jumped into bed with the dashing rake of a neighbour and they were caught in flagrante by the shocked heroine, Fanny. Whilst in the book this fabled bit was described as "jumping over the ha-ha gate" a metaphor that sailed over my head when I was skimming it for exams. I was in the cinema when I saw the characters going at it, and I couldn't help myself from exclaiming aloud, Oh! The Ha-Ha gate!

Pride and Predudice doesn't have anything as juicy and censorious as the incident in Mansfield Park. It is a much fluffier work, one which the author herself thought was lacking in a bit of weight. But it is one that has touched the hearts of lots of romantic women who should probably know better, but can't help indulging in the wish-fullfillment pleasure anyway.

The treatment of P&P in the BBC adaptation is nevertheless sexed up by Davies' invention of the famous wet-shirt scene that poor Colin Firth will rue until the day he dies, even if he acknowledges that it also set up his entire career. There is no mention of his dip before he comes accross the heroine still dripping in the novel. But it was a stroke of genius - women swooned, they just loved it despite the ridiculousness of the incident - why would a lord decide after a long ride to swim in a murky pond when he could pop into his huge house nearby and fill one of a dozen baths for his ablutions? Because then we wouldn't get our delicously titillating moment. Davies knows just how to judge when to pop one in.

There are other moments just as delicious, an early ball scene where they dance verbally and physically is a masterclass in TV choreography, the 'accidental' meetings of the would-be lovers in the snooker room or on the grounds are also timed to perfection, as is the heart-melting moment in the drawing room when they know they are in love and look at each other lingeringly over the piano forte oblivious to the others in the room - ahh. Even the fight when he first proposes is a beautifully acted and directed scene of tension that allows me to shed buckets of guilty tears if I am alone to indulge myself.

But the Knightley film, that seemed to be so successful, just rocketed along, careering past and only just touching off plot points and omitting delightful comic moments because they had to. For the film it was only about the love story between the two protagonists, with no time for any comment on the class mores and mileu, nope, just get to the snog at the end. And then you can watch the alternative 'American' ending where we see Elizabeth and Darcy embarrassingly going over their courtship in icky detail in a gag-inducing scene where he says something about calling her Mrs Darcy forever.

That was not in the book. Neither was the extended kissing and the cakey candle-lit surroundings, it is a moment of fan fiction. Like Gone with the Wind part 2 or some spin-off Harry Potter fantasy where minor characters have dramatic gay sex in the Hogwarts staff room. Trust me, get the Davies version, pack off the boyfriend somewhere and settle down with a box of chockies and a hanky or three.

With Middlemarch Davies was not yet the star adapter and the budget was not quite there that they would enjoy after the success of 1995's P&P, but nevertheless the scope and drama of the book are very enjoyably realised. To see the full Davies treatment, however, go straight for Bleak House, the increase in directorial and editing pizzaz is remarkable and in no way detracts from the story - it makes great TV.

The most recent Davies' adaptation I have seen is Fanny Hill. This is an extraodinary choice because the original, in my opinion is unreadable. Obviously other people have managed it, but the relentless descriptions of male members as throbing rods of ivory and so on gets pretty tedious, pretty quickly. And in terms of depth of characterisation and thematic exploration it is one dimensional - a straightforward no applogies story of a girl from the country who beds her way to the top, thanks very much. Tom Jones is a far more enjoyable saucy rags to riches tale - and the best thing Kubrick ever did.

So not all of Davies' adaptation are equally brilliant, and not all of the BBC petticoat producitons that were made without Davies' input are worthless, most of them are definitely worth a look. I can highly recommend Tipping the Velvet adapted from a Sarah Waters' novel, it is more tightly written than Fingersmiths also by Waters but not adapted by Davies, but both are worth watching. I also enjoyedBBC versions of Dafoe's Moll Flanders and Trollope's The Way We Live Now, especially as I know full well that I will never get around to reading them unless I am struck down with a debilitation illness.

I missed out on the latest BBC offering here, Cranford, which has garnered some good reviews - but it is the case that if you miss the first Sunday, you have to miss all the others until you can get them out on a box set from the library. Bless the box set! How did they do it before DVDs? Imagine watching the brilliant I Claudius every Sunday for weeks and weeks, if you missed a week of that you would be lost. The only trouble with the box set is that it is hard not to go for that next episode even if it is 3am on a worknight, it is too easy to say go on, and click on to the next one.

It should be noted that our Mr Davies has not just done period adaptations. He also wrote various episodes for various TV series, as well as film scripts, inlcuding famously and probably lucratively the two Briget Jones' movies, but it is the TV mini-series where he excels. It doesn't even have to be period - his scathing and ironic political miniseries The House of Cards and To Play the King are also delights for the box set collection in the tradition of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy.

I guess it is a reflection of my recent relaxation into domesticity that heralds my respect and enjoyment of these TV serials. And perhaps it is because it allows me to cheat my literary credentials as I acknowledge that my reading tastes are getting lighter instead of weightier as I get older. I still enjoy the odd trip to the movies, and I have not yet given up reading altogether, but as I am sitting there flicking between chanels looking for something to watch while eating tea, I am grateful to the BBC for providing me via the DVD player with reliable extended viewing pleasure that makes me feel as if I am getting more out of the box than a dose of reality TV, an education as well as entertainment. Bring on the BBC serials, it annoys the hell out of some people, but I am properly grateful.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Settling down in Britain

From a life of whim and indolence (as my boyfriend would have it) I am now suddenly and dramatically interested in all things fence-picketed. My carefree single life has devolved into slightly ill-fitting domesticity. I remember in the over-baked days of my youth in Tamworth wondering whether I was headed one day for domestic bliss or slavery; pessimistically I believed it would be the latter and so spent many pleasant single years doing just as I pleased, wandering through Asia, contracting intestinal bugs and divesting myself of bulky possessions as I moved from one relationship to anther, one job to another, one country to another.

Now I am definitely ‘partnered’ I am as happy as can be, but the realities that others have faced for years, such as mortgages and parenthood have given me a rude slap in the face and made me thoroughly ashamed of my tardiness in the school of real life. I have been thrust into frantic catch-up study of adulthood and this blog of late has become a record of all my crammed homework. I beg your indulgence as I will now produce a short series on the terrors of home renovation that will be familiar to many but which has come to a shock to my sensitivities.

The importance of buying, renting and renovating homes in the UK can’t be underestimated. In Australia there were lots of home improvement TV shows and magazines, but the emphasis over here is much more on hardcore property development – i.e. not so much the Australian ‘my home is my castle’ philosophy, but more along the line of ‘chuck in your day job and strike it rich through property development’.

Even the home improvement shows here seem to have an emphasis on money making schemes. If a flat won’t sell – what do you have to do to impress the buyers? Can you make big bucks if you gamble and buy a dump from auction sight unseen? Even when the focus is on personal lifestyle choice, the programmes here more often follow the pattern of how to buy overseas than how to renovate what you’ve got.

Whether they are empty-nesters downsizing or people choosing between the countryside or moving to Spain, the emphasis seems to be about moving on, whereas in Australia it seemed to be much more about improving what you’ve got through extensive decking.

Recently, on UK ground level (not TV-land), prices of flats and houses have topped out, the listings at the real estate agents have stagnated, interest rates have skyrocketed and everyone has a skip parked outside rather than plans to sell up and move on. It is not reflected as much on TV, but it is endemic on my street and elsewhere in the neighbouring suburbs.

Lately, I have to admit that I have not been reading modern literature in translation or seeking out the latest work by of a worthy playwright or modern artist. Instead I have been checking out bedroom and bathroom showrooms and leafing through magazines and brochures I would normally only glance at in a waiting room. I am no different than so many others; I have officially joined the brigade of the house proud. This is because we are in the throes of a house renovation, with side and back double story extensions and a loft conversion. We are trying to turn a four-bedroom Edwardian semi-detached suburban home into… a four-bedroom semi-detached suburban home.

It is true! After doing everything possible to extend the available living space, we have ended up with exactly the same number of bedrooms as we started with! But they are all large bedrooms now, instead of two large, and two tiny rooms. And we have three bathrooms instead of one, and most importantly of all we have made a small kitchen into a very large kitchen/dining room with double doors leading out to the garden. So, it is not all in vain, but it is difficult, trying and expensive. And so I am now going to share my experiences with you. Read on.

The Edwardians

The Edwardian period in Britain marked an incredible period of house-building that laid the foundations for how life is lived here today in many ways. The Edwardians, with better transportation and communications made the move out into the suburbs, leaving Victorian terrace houses in favour of semi-detached and detached homes on leafy streets in neighbourhoods, rather than villages or city squares, reflecting a shift towards the privacy of the single family unit that still exists today. This is despite divorce, childless couples and the influence of immigration with extended family models; enduringly, the Edwardian model of the family house overlays our own.

The Edwardians laid out the pattern of rooms that we still use today. What was important then were more than one reception room, decent sized bedrooms, a large kitchen and scullery, a pantry and wine cellar, a bathroom with separate WC, a coal cellar, and the ‘mod-cons’ of hot and cold water, perhaps newly installed electric lighting and even a telephone connection. The Edwardians also wanted a hedged or fenced off front yard which was decorative and not used, and a private back garden which was.

What is important today for the average family is fairly similar, with the scullery transformed into the laundry/utility room marking the rise of the appliance, and the coal cellar giving way to the garage, and the additional bathrooms will more likely have showers than bathtubs. The mod-cons today are similarly focused on energy and communications – our modern homes aspire to having cable or satellite TV, wireless broadband internet and the green credentials of double glazing, insulation, and possibly solar heating.

The Victorian fascination with moral and spiritual health, gave way to an Edwardian obsession with physical health and cleanliness, which has given way to a modern desire for global interconnection and carbon neutrality. The design of houses reflects social priorities; then as now we live our obsessions on our sleeves. Today we want wall-mounted TVs, a place to put our recycle bins and off-street parking.

It is interesting to know that 90% of Edwardians rented and that most houses were built ‘speculatively’, that is, they were built for landlords to rent out and the occupiers had little say in the design or the fitting of the houses. Today two-up, two-down cottages that would have been built for workers are being snapped up by upwardly mobile young professionals; it is a purchase on that rung of the property ladder located between the single person’s first flat and the family home in the best suburb we can afford.

Even if most people will change properties several times in their lives, usually at the most significant moments of their life, the purchase of a property is a always a heavy undertaking. As Alain de Botton noted in The Architecture of Happiness for most people a house is the most important and expensive thing they will buy in their life, so it is natural that we will tend to be conservative when making this important decision. Even new houses therefore tend to be built to look a lot like older ones. De Botton bemoans this tendency and declares that we must buck the trend and opt for more dramatic modern architecturally designed homes that suit our modern lifestyles.

The rest of us can be excused for ignoring his advice. It is fine for the wealthy and arty to go for the modern, but the rest of us could be working our whole lives to pay off a single building and so we don’t want it to be experimental; we want it to keep its value. So the housing market will always, to some extent look backwards, even as we want it to adapt to our changing modern lives.

The Edwardians looked backwards, not only to the Victorians but to the Georgians and even Tudor for design inspiration. They were magpies for taking nibbles of all sorts of design elements from neo-classical columns to Jacobean plaster ceilings, but they still developed a new direction for design.

Edwardian houses differed markedly from the Victorian in their emphasis on simpler design lines, with a much greater delight in natural light and a penchant for decoration. With the rise in disposable income, and a taste for journals which the newly literate and leisured middle-classes perused eagerly, the Edwardians went to town on fancy fireplaces, wallpaper, tiles, and furniture. It is the more permanent fixtures like stained glass, fireplaces, light fixtures and tiles that we are so desperate to preserve or replicate today. These ‘period features’ are renovator’s gold as we look backwards while we look forwards when trying do decorate our homes today.