Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Needles & Pinches

Georgia Train lying on a bed of feathers and flowers

Content Note: infertility, miscarriage, suicide

A little over a year ago, singer-songwriter Georgia Train (formerly of Bitter Ruin) opened up to her fans about struggling with fertility treatment and IVF. Having done so, the devastation when the process was unsuccessful was atypically public. When faced with any tragedy, the best thing we humans can do is use it to fuel art, sharing that pain in a way that can connect us and make a stranger feel a little less alone. The result is her latest album, Needles & Pinches, which contains a beautiful outpouring of grief and hope. As well as recommending that you listen, I would like to use its release to discuss some of its subject matter, issues from which we typically shy away. The photographs illustrating this post are publicity shots for the album taken by Scott Chalmers.

Album cover for Needles & Pinches

“I’ll never forget the day
They told me you got away
From it all.”

Georgia Train, Needles & Pinches

The title track opens the album and is a statement of intent: brutally honest and hauntingly beautiful in capturing the weariness from gruelling fertility treatments, and then the overwhelming rage-inducing grief from the loss of a child. Conventional wisdom (at least in the Anglosphere) advises parents not to discuss a pregancy until 12 weeks in, since most miscarriages occur before that date. Whilst it is of course a personal choice for those involved, the default approach leaves parents who do experience miscarriage to deal with the anguish alone and with little support. Since it is so little discussed, many people are not even aware of how common it is, with 10-15% of known pregnancies ending in miscarriage (a figure that, along with the volume of unknown miscarriages, ought also to feature more heavily in the discourse around abortion).

It may seem odd that I have particularly strong opinions on this, but I am fortunate that a few friends felt able to open up to me about their struggles with having children, and what I saw above all was the crippling isolation they felt in not being able to talk freely about it, whilst going through an experience that permeated every part of their lives. There was a visible flood of relief simply in being able to talk about it with someone other than their spouse.

Georgia surrounded by syringes
These syringes are just half of a year’s worth of fertility treatment.

“And I know it’s easier to let go
To let the fire leave your chest
In exchange for deeper rest”

Georgia Train, Pain Beneath The Best

The fragile piano beneath the plaintive vocals on Pain Beneath The Best marks Georgia coming to terms with a friend’s suicide attempt. Lyrically it feels like an understanding embrace, accepting the truth of the pain but reminding you that the world would be worse without you in it. Yet her voice also echoes that personal hurt and the fear of being left behind. It is a pleasing balance to find, with many songs touching on this subject matter leaning more heavily into the anger at wasted life or expressing only the pain rather than the love which causes it. Discourse around mental health has improved immeasurably over the past decade but I feel a lingering sentiment that remains is the idea that suicide is a selfish choice rather than a last resort for those who can see no end to the pain they have endured for too long, and who genuinely believe others will be better off without them. It is only by starting from a place of understanding that those drowning deep within suicidal ideation will ever feel comfortable in revealing it rather than concealing their struggle until it is too late.

“I don’t to want to talk about it now
I just want to be the who when they
Point the finger and the who you say
You love”

Georgia Train, The Who

This is the common thread that I see through these particular trials — that they are so often concealed rather than shared. Particularly in our fragmented modern communities, where family and friends may be separated by miles or even oceans, it is vital that we are able to talk openly (whether the restriction comes initially from a personal choice or an external stigmatisation). Art like Needles & Pinches can reach us over those distances, so that we know we are not alone, but that is only the first step. I previously said that I felt fortunate to be able to support some friends through these agonising experiences, but I also worry about those I could not reach and mourn the ones I never can. As I often tell friends: you don’t have to talk to me about it, so long as you have someone that you’re talking to. And if you don’t, you know where I am.

Georgia dressed in black in a swimming pool

The Night Before Last in Soho

The night before last in Soho, just round the corner from Haymarket and Café de Paris which feature prominently in the film, director Edgar Wright attended a Q&A following a screening of Last Night in Soho. It is the first such event I have been able to attend in over two years, so I’m glad to be able to share it with you.

The Story

Last Night in Soho originated from an idea voiced in the film by Eloise’s landlady when asked whether anyone has died in a room: “This is London. Someone has died in every room in every building and on every street corner in the city.” Wright doesn’t seem entirely convinced by the existence of ghosts, but he is drawn to the idea of psychic residue imbuing the walls of most of this city in which millions of souls have lived and died.

The plot for Last Night in Soho has existed for around a decade, during which time a researcher has been collecting stories from Soho residents. These tales of coercive manipulation of the young and naïve were “harrowing reading”, and what Wright found particularly depressing was how similar the experiences were. The world may have moved on, but these issues remain far from fixed, as highlighted in the past few years by the #MeToo movement and the litany of allegations against Kevin Spacey in the London arts scene.

The Shoot

When he talks about filmmaking, Wright unassumingly reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of film history that is Tarantino-esque in the ability to draw from from the work of past directors. Mark Kermode has described his movies as “haunted by the ghosts of other films” which seems particularly fitting for Last Night in Soho, its views of London pulled not just from history but from our collective cinematic memory of the era. Wright also mentions his love of the Reelstreets website, an Internet rabbit-hole with a searchable collection of locations that appeared in films alongside how they look now.

Filming on location in the centre of London requires immense preparation, with three months’ notice needed to close most Soho streets, and even longer for the incredible shot that transports Haymarket back to the 1960s. “London can’t be tamed,” Wright comments, “you have to flood the shot with your own stuff”. That included not just period cars but wholesale recreation of 1960s storefront and venue facades. The resulting moment as Eloise first steps into the 1960s, combined with a surge of vibrant colour from the film’s initially desaturated palette and a soundscape that suddenly expands into Dolby Atmos surround, is intoxicating.

Image via Focus Features

Wright has worked with the same editor, Paul Machliss, since Spaced. With Baby Driver he had Machliss on set during filming because of how precisely timed the cuts needed to be in order to match the music. He has continued that approach in Last Night in Soho and explains that he didn’t want anyone but Machliss to see the rough cuts during shooting. The biggest new name in the crew is Chung-hoon Chung, who has been Park Chan-Wook’s cinematographer since Oldboy (Wright complains about now having to refer to it as “the first Oldboy“, in reference to the ignominious Hollywood remake). This provided a South Korean eye on London, which in turn helps to sell Eloise’s view of the city as a newcomer.

The Memories

During the course of filming, Wright spent a lot of time with Diana Rigg and he continued to visit her up until her death last year. You can hear the emotion in his voice as he describes how grateful he is to have known her, and she seems to feature in his favourite anecdotes. He shares her prepared response to brush off questions about her past that she didn’t want to answer, “Oh, I don’t remember the 60s, darling. I was too busy shooting The Avengers!”

Café de Paris is meticulously recreated as a set on a soundstage because of the complex camerawork required for those scenes. It was strange to walk past the venue later that evening, frozen in time since its closure during the pandemic, yet brought magically to life on film. It was when Wright took Rigg to visit the set that her guard slipped, recalling a memory:

“I remember walking down those stairs with a lot of rheumy-eyed men looking me up and down like a piece of meat.”

Diana Rigg
Image via Focus Features

This perhaps best encapsulates the danger of which Wright warns in even his own nostalgia. “The further you get away from it, you can choose to romanticise it, just remembering the music and fashion.” He explains that he used to imagine himself as a “cultural time traveler” taking in gigs and experiences from the past. But you can’t be selective about the past in that way, and in that sense he sees Last Night in Soho as “a cautionary tale to time travellers”.

The Music

It will be of little surprise that the director of the musically meticulous Baby Driver had most of the 1960s soundtrack selected long before filming. He knew that he wanted it to reflect the women of the time, performers like Cilla Black (who is portrayed in the film), describing their songs as “streaked with tears”.

However, one late addition is arguably the film’s best. When Anya Taylor-Johnson was cast, Wright didn’t know she could sing. On discovering this, an audition scene at the Rialto was added. He knew immediately that “Downtown” would be the perfect song for Sandie, with Taylor-Johnson’s a capella delivery pure and fragile. It also gifted us with a fully orchestrated downtempo version of Downtown that perhaps captures the film’s tone better than any narrative trailer could. Now that you’ve read this, it is well worth five minutes of your time.

The COVID-19 Diaries V: The Year Inside

You have probably noticed the distinct lack of blog posts (or perhaps you haven’t — there have been some other significant things going on in the world); I have essentially managed four since the start of lockdown over a year ago, and nothing in the last five months. At the start it was easy to explain: I didn’t want to post positive platitudes that I barely believed, nor did I want to wallow self-indulgently in my own lockdown malaise when everyone was experiencing their own difficulties, whether living alone or in claustrophobic company. The real reason ran deeper: my focus was shot, and my thought processes had become so fragmented that the sheer effort required to compose more than a paragraph of coherent text at a time seemed impossible. So, what would I have said?

It’s April 2020 and the reduction in my meat intake over the last two years has almost entirely reversed only a month into lockdown. I had cut my meat in take by around 50% before the pandemic, primarily because of the hypocrisy of espousing environmental concern given the carbon footprint of a borderline carnivorous diet. Abandoning this was less a conscious choice than the ease of and desire for the comfortingly familiar. That, and take-away delivery. During the first lockdown I cooked almost entirely for myself. By the second lockdown, Deliveroo and Just Eat were regular features, with the dual middle class guilt of relying on someone else adopting the risk of infection outdoors whilst I remain home, and the disposing of armfuls of single-use food containers. But hey, I haven’t flown in two years so overall my carbon footprint is way down.

It’s May 2020 and I’ve been consuming a lot of TikTok. The target demographic may be younger than me but there are increasing numbers of older content creators. Most importantly, there’s plenty of creativity and – as far as social media goes – it’s far healthier than hours of doomscrolling through twitter or Instagram. For related reasons, I refuse to watch the Government’s perfidious press briefings on the pandemic: reading the news coverage dissecting it afterwards is probably more informative and certainly less draining on my mental health. Consumption is far easier than creation; I can’t write anything of significance (much as I want to contribute to the dialogue around structural racism), so digital illustrations have been my outlet, whether they are simply portraits or more meaningful. They may take a dozen hours to produce, but at least it can be done whilst binge-watching a TV series.

PE with John Wick

It’s June 2020 and I haven’t interacted in person with anyone who isn’t a grocery store clerk for two and a half months. It is definitely the lack of social — and physical — contact that I find the hardest. Being in the flat for around 9 days at a time between trips to restock the fridge is weird but has not left me feeling particularly caged as I can still journey into all manner of worlds through videogames and films. Meanwhile my hair is nearing a length one might consider “grown” rather than merely uncut. My goal is to avoid getting it cut until we reach the inevitable second lockdown, which should allow it to reach a length where I can tie it back neatly. This is the only time it is socially acceptable for me to grow out long hair in my line of work, so I may as well take advantage of it. A boar bristle brush and Moroccan Oil have been vital tools in taming the longer locks.

It’s July 2020 and my concentration is shot. I seem just about able to function for work, though working from home and living alone has blurred any distinction around the end of the work day. Which is not to say it’s bad — saving hours of commuting a week and never worrying about being late are serious benefits; the issue is more the general expectation that you’re contactable most of the time rather than when in the office. Plus there’s the matter of air conditioning. I want to write more, to engage with our shared experiences worldwide through this pandemic, but I can’t. QuickViews are about all I can manage. At least that means I’m still producing Content™. That’s important, right? I remember Content™ being important.

It’s August 2020 and I find myself helplessly torn between the desire to contribute to small businesses told that they can reopen and the personal conviction that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme is dangerously ill-conceived. I made a joke about it not applying to strip clubs which was uncouth but also probably the best thing I’ve written this year. It seems that there is a desperate desire for a return to normality shared by the entire population but the looming disaster of a worse collapse if we reopen too early is only recognised by half. That is not nearly enough.

It’s September 2020 and spending one day a week in the office (primarily to ensure I can provide a better training experience to my trainee) has finally reduced the extent to which the days and weeks merge entirely into one another. It’s a welcome change, even if it can’t last.

It’s October 2020 and we’re preparing for a second national lockdown. Only six weeks late. The fixed 2nd December end date is worrisome as I suspect Johnson is determined to reopen no matter the circumstances in order to enable several weeks of pre-Christmas shopping, even if it forces us straight back into an even longer lockdown. How some people still support these self-serving clowns is beyond me, with literally billions wasted on failed test and tracing and openly corrupt contract awards. Oh, and the dead, who are becoming almost a footnote.

It’s November 2020 and this lockdown has been far more bearable with weekly visits from my sister and nephew. When others reminisce nostalgically about the first lockdown, it is very clear they did not live alone before “social bubbles” were permitted.

It’s December 2020 and I hate being right. After a few pointless weeks out of lockdown, I will be spending Christmas alone, although I will get to see my sister’s family on Boxing Day. A care package from a partner at work filled with gin and old fashioneds definitely makes me feel appreciated. It’s better that it’s me rather than anyone else — after all, I have had to do it before, exactly ten years ago. Let’s hope Christmas 2030 fares better…

It’s January 2021 and my concentration is shot. Did I say that already? I have started world-building as a creative outlet, fleshing out an alternate version of London or fantasy kingdoms for use in roleplaying games. The advantage is that I can produce just a single card at a time and gradually build things out over weeks and months. I don’t know that I will actually run games using these worlds. Perhaps later I will write stories using these settings; for now, the act of creation is the goal in itself.

It’s February 2021 and I can feel myself starting to unravel with built-up stress from work and no way to blow off steam. I haven’t been drinking excessively at home (my overall intake has dropped rather than risen over the past year, the opposite of my expectation given that the flat is very well stocked with booze) and I don’t think it would help. My sleep cycle remains pretty broken. I have fully grown into the “lockdown Jesus” look.

It’s March 2021 and it has been the best (worst?) part of a year spent inside. The vaccination rollout provides a reason to be optimistic; the COVID variants appearing do not. It’s a good thing that Brexit was all about taking back control of our borders so that, a year into a literal global pandemic, naturally the Government is only now discussing the feasibility of closing the borders, the one thing any casual player of Plague, Inc. knows is incredibly effective for an island nation. It has been a long and exhausting year and yet, through the repetitive monotony, I struggle to recall much at all beyond the shared cultural touchstones like The Tiger King. Perhaps if I sat down and tried to diarise it…

It’s—

Recreating inside a photo I took outside just before the start of lockdown: in the London-set Watchdogs Legion (top) and the Outside World (bottom).

The COVID-19 Diaries IV: Good Morrow

I think we can all agree that the season finale of 2020 was rather underwhelming, offering little levity after a decidedly subdued Christmas Special as a result of last-minute cast and location changes. The vaccination storyline is the most promising going into 2021, and hints at a return to regular programming later in the year. My concern, however, is that many people have allowed themselves to fixate upon the end of 2020 as an end to problems that plagued it. 2020 may have been awful from the start, but the arbitrary marker of 1 January 2021 is not a hard reset, and the reality of continuing to deal with 2020’s issues is likely to be a hard realisation that crashes down later this month, consciously or otherwise. Please keep an eye on each other.

My camera remained holstered for most of the year (though I remain proud of the desolate London in Lockdown shoot in March) so there won’t be the usual lengthy photographic rundown of 2020. There are, however, a few things worth sharing.

5 Centimetres Per Second
Featured here is Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimetres Per Second.

The bulk of updates to the site have continued to be QuickViews, which grew by 43 new films in 2020. Whilst not inconsequential, that is around half the rate of the previous the two years. I had rather expected that lockdown would cause this number to rise rather than to fall. The best explanation I can provide is that my ability to concentrate has been greatly diminished by the tumultuous year and so I have probably been drawn more toward shorter television episodes that require a shorter attention span. I have noticed a similar shift in videogaming where, unusually, I am now more likely to indulge in familiar, repetitive gameplay (like Destiny or Assassin’s Creed) than seeking out fresh new experiences.

I have been hosting a sporadic virtual movie night, dubbed COVIDeo Club, which provided a more social and structured way to force myself to carve out time for films. It is partially democratic, with films selected by a vote from a shortlist I circulate in advance. The highlight was The Peanut Butter Falcon which many of us might otherwise have missed.

Also, for those who may have missed access to Reeltime Harry Potter (due to a broken liveblog plugin that is no longer maintained), I have now formatted them by hand so that you can revisit them once more.

Georgina Hare painting
During the first lockdown, I commissioned this gorgeous painting from Georgina Hare and it now hangs above my bed. My nephew David is also a big fan.

As readers will know, many of my friends are artists and performers who have been particularly hard hit by lockdown. They are smart and adaptable, of course, but by far the best way to support artists is — ultimately — purchasing their services. I have tried to do so during lockdown, though I could probably do more.

Dalmore virtual whisky tasting
A virtual Dalmore whisky tasting with drams supplied by The Whisky Exchange, and led over Zoom by Dalmore’s master blender, Richard Paterson.

Translating real world experiences to virtual platforms has been an inconsistent affair. A tasting, for example, loses any real sense of social interaction, but can still be fun for enthusiasts if you have an engaging speaker. Aside from regular D&D sessions led by Ben, which have become considerably more frequent without needing to align calendars so that we can be physically in the same place, my tabletop games have gone largely untouched over the past year, even as more arrive from Kickstarter campaigns I backed in 2018 and 2019, as if to taunt me. Playing a few online alongside Zoom calls has been fun, but there is definitely space for an online substitute with greater verisimilitude.

During the first lockdown I managed largely to avoid the Zoom quizzes that seemed to entertain and then infuriate. I did however end the year with a couple of virtual escape rooms with work (in lieu of a Christmas party, with riddles that played very much to my skillset) and with friends (on New Year’s Eve).

Christmas hair
The length of my hair by Christmas. Also featured is Philip the Bird, one of several puppets I acquired to play with my nephew, both in person and over video calls.

Early during the first lockdown, I said that my goal was to avoid cutting my hair until the inevitable second lockdown in order to grow it out. It seems to be the one social acceptable time for me to experiment with long hair. It has certainly been a learning curve, particularly as I discovered my hair is extremely wavy at length (controlled with a boar bristle paddle brush and a Moroccan Oil lotion). My current intention is for it to reach shoulder length, though I don’t know how long it will last. Reviews have been largely positive…

Christmas 2020

Merry Christmas from Meewella.com

The COVID-19 Diaries III: Isolation Illustration

At the end of last year, I picked up Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 to replace my ailing Sony XPERIA Z4 Tablet. The Z4 had been perfect for me though poor sales meant Sony never released a successor, and the Tab S6 is the first tablet since to tick all my boxes. Samsung bundles the S-Pen stylus, which I expected to be an unnecessary addition for me, like the keyboard included with the Z4 which languished untouched in a drawer for years. Around the new year, I started playing around with a few sketching apps on the tablet. Little did I know that this would develop into a hobby perfectly suited to forthcoming social distancing, the timing being fortuitous for my sanity. The initial experiments were incredibly rough, but I found it therapeutic to have a new creative outlet at a point when I have been struggling for writing inspiration (hence the lack of new Shards). I settled on a technique of inking over photographs to highlight the details I wanted to capture, then using multiple layers for colouring and finally adding shadows and highlights for depth. After trying a few apps I settled on Adobe Illustrator Draw for its thicker strokes. And then it suddenly clicked. You will be able to find my illustrations as a new area of the Artist section of the site, divided into a few basic categories that will likely grow over time.

I began with portraits of individuals because using them for fleeting birthday wishes was an understated way to share what I produced as I improved. Shamini, who has been drawing D&D characters for some time, provided helpful mentoring as I found a style I liked, including the addition of stylised backgrounds from my own photography. That led to adapting a photograph from her birthday party (remember birthday parties?) into a fairytale witch. I discovered that slavish recreation of a photograph often resulted in an image that seemed less realistic because of unusual optics or angles in the underlying image. Influenced by my photography, my focus was originally on faces, with sparser detail on the rest of the image. You can see how that developed over time into the intricate detail in Tempest’s corset. It is incredibly time-consuming, but that’s arguably perfect for lockdown and I find the finely detailed work soothing. Meanwhile the drawing of Shep shortly after he died was my limited offering at a distance to his grieving family, as well as a tribute to a wonderfully good boy.

The first series of drawings I consciously produced as an ongoing set (after liking the result of the original image of Angie) is the “Isolation Series“. Created as the COVID-19 lockdown began in the UK, these were an attempt to capture the atmosphere of self-isolation. The loosely linked images feature pensive, lone individuals surrounded by a white void rather than a background. Each also contains certain objects in considerable detail as a focal point outside of the person themselves.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most popular images I have shared are those linked to pop culture. I had an evocative photo I had taken of Dave from an unusual angle with a fish-eye lens. The white shirt and red tie were immediately reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead and his expression seemed to fit too. Netflix’s Tiger King show proved a welcome distraction to those in quarantine, and drawing tiger print provided an intricate, time-consuming distraction of its own. Lastly, photographs of cosplayers like kysplay allow the creation of stylised images that lie somewhere between the individual and the source material which inspired their look. Just don’t tell Harry Potter fans that to emulate Breath of the Wild’s towering ruins I actually used a photograph I’d taken of Hogwarts!

I am glad that people seem to be enjoying these, and it’s allowing me to go through some of my historic photographs to produce new images at a time when I cannot simply take my camera out. It’s also offering a new perspective on some images, as well as making me increasingly aware of certain interactions of light that will feed back into photography. Do let me know what you think, and which are your favourites.

The COVID-19 Diaries II: Discoveries

I have not been feeling sufficiently eloquent to capture much of what I have felt over the past few weeks. At a fundamental level, I have a felt a considerable amount of guilt over the fact that the transition to isolation has been largely painless for me. The fact I have a job capable of remote work is helpful of course, but more than this — as an introvert I draw energy from time in my own company and I have more than enough hobbies to fill the hours at home. My sympathy for extrovert colleagues having a harder time with the transition lessened when I realised that their discomfort is — to a considerable extent — emblematic of the fact the working world is generally designed around their preferences.

Can we stop pretending that we all have a huge amount of free time now? Those working from home have traded time commuting for a system in which individual tasks likely take longer due to technological or other limitations. Those who have lost work are industriously finding ways to supplement their income. Those with children are now supplying permanent childcare alongside their existing roles. And everyone is having to manage and maintain a single space for home and work that is suddenly occupied 24 hours a day. So if you haven’t picked up an esoteric new hobby, built a shed or reorganised your entire bookshelf like a friend on Facebook, that’s not a personal failure.

It’s easy to be cynical about the weekly applause for NHS workers and yet there was something immediately heartwarming about the widespread sound genuine support. No, it’s not a substitute for a decade of underfunding or for proper pay (and adequate PPE), but it is meaningful to those working long hours at high risk of infection. Everyone should be welcome to join in that gesture of appreciation. Those who voted for the Tories can certainly applaud but ought to feel guilty as they do so; those who still intend to vote for them should feel hypocrisy. That praise should be extended to all frontline workers of course: those keeping us fed and powered, and ensuring we don’t drown in our own filth. Despite the Government rhetoric, this is not wartime where sacrificing lives is essential. The NHS in particular should not have to be at risk when carrying out their lifesaving role, particularly when we had months of advance warning in which to build up stocks of necessary equipment. Coupling that with what appear to have been entirely untrue assurances about stockpiles of protective equipment is unacceptable and will only undermine what public trust remains.

Regent Street
Check out the full London in Lockdown photo album for more images of empty London.

I also wanted to share a few fragmented discoveries about the lockdown life:

  • I haven’t read a book for weeks. It took me the best part of two weeks to actually notice consciously. I knew that I had reduced my news consumption because I was keenly aware that the 24/7 COVID-19 news cycle wasn’t particularly healthy, boiled down to rising numbers and little context. However, I eventually realised that most of my reading time was allocated to my commute or my lunch break. I am yet to find a new rhythm.
  • If you are someone who cuts their own hair, you have suddenly jumped from having the least impressive to the most impressive hair in your friendship group. For the rest of us, I think the best approach is to lean into wild hair. However, keep a selection of hats readily available for videocalls — last week I even found an excuse to don a tricorn pirate hat.
  • Even if you don’t have a great home office setup, the quickest way to improve how you come across in videocalls is to raise the height of your webcam to eye level. Stack up some boxes and balance your laptop on them if that’s what it requires — no one can see what’s under your camera.
  • All the extra handwashing is drying out your hands. Hand cream helps but SLS-free hand wash may be a worthwhile investment.
  • It’s strange how swiftly one becomes used to empty skies even in a city like London, dense with flight paths. Now a lone set of contrails draw the eye as an alien mar again the sky.
  • Remember what I wrote about physical contact a year and a half ago? Increase that exponentially with each passing day.

The COVID-19 Diaries I: Clear Messaging

It is an unsettling time to be human. A pandemic on this scale was inevitable and yet the reality of the outbreak has provoked misplaced panic because many leaders’ reactions have been woefully inadequate and collectively we were psychologically unprepared. I have avoided writing about the Coronavirus outbreak until now. Given my lack of virology credentials, I did not want to pass on unverified information; go to The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for the best source of UK-centric medical information. Nor do I want to provide calming platitudes. Rather, as the UK moves into its second week of lockdown, I want to write about the way we react to this situation, and explore what we can learn from our time in isolation.

Uncertainty encourages humans to follow the actions of the herd for safety but — without applying critical thought — it results in a nonsensical shortage of toilet roll (in Australia, bulk buying made some sense since they import a substantial volume from China where supplies were at risk of disruption; in the UK we have plenty of paper mills producing our own, so copying the Australian reaction achieved nothing more than voluntarily disrupting our own supply chain). It is easy to blame others for acting selfishly, but strong leadership should be quelling such actions through clear and transparent messaging.

Instead, the UK Government (whose main achievement continues to be that at least it is not the US Government) chose to delay taking action despite the clear consequences in Italy, justifying this to the public on the basis of “acquiring herd immunity”, without really addressing the fact that uncontrolled spreading would place an impossible burden on the healthcare system. Whilst herd immunity might be the outcome of a large swathe of population contracting the virus, it is only something we actively court through administering vaccines which, notably, don’t require a substantial number of people becoming seriously ill and requiring hospitalisation. This plan reeks of a Dominic Cummings policy that runs counter to conventional wisdom and sounds a bit smart until subjected to any rigorous scrutiny. As a result, when social distancing measures were belatedly introduced, it is little wonder that many people were sceptical and flouted the recommendations, requiring firmer controls. For Johnson to shirk any responsibility by acting like a disappointed parent when announcing the lockdown was deeply disingenuous. This is, after all, the same man who bragged about shaking hands with infected patients and has now tested positive for the virus.

London Abandoned: Jubilee Bridge
Note: this photograph was taken prior to the official lockdown in London, adopting social distancing guidelines and avoiding public transport.

A week into lockdown, messaging has improved although much of the “Stay Home” mantra is being propagated through social media from sources other than the Government. Supermarkets are imposing measures to limit numbers inside stores and, as a Brit, it was pleasing to see a queue outside in which people automatically adopted the recommended 2m distancing without any discussion required — even in a crisis, if there is one thing we can do, it is to form an orderly queue.

Meanwhile, if you want to know what strong Government messaging from the start looks like, I hope you have had the chance to experience Vietnam’s genuinely excellent “viral” sensation:

Christmas 2019

Merry Christmas from meewella.com

Like Clockwork

Malcolm McDowell Q&A

When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I was immediately enthralled by this subversive gem so ahead of its time in 1971 that it still feels modern today. The opportunity to see it return to the big screen was an easy draw, particularly as it turned out Malcolm McDowell would be in town to discuss the film. I wrote after my first viewing that, “The dark satire relies on making McDowell’s electric performance relatable which is no small feat.” I was fascinated to hear more about how Alex DeLarge came about.

DeLarger than life

As a young Shakespearean stage actor, McDowell claims not to have felt intimidated by Kubrick despite his reputation and success. Rather, he saw the project as a collaboration. That is quite something for an actor who has only just entered the world of film with If…., an allegorical story about revolution at an English private school. That first feature, perhaps because of its anarchic sensibilities, led directly to his selection for A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s widow recently recalled that the director had screened the film at home, repeating McDowell’s first scene five times, before turning to her and saying, “we’ve found our Alex.”

“Stanley wasn’t interested in the actor’s problem at all,” McDowell explains of the struggle to find a way to perform Alex. That became liberating, giving him the confidence to improvise — particularly with physicality, such as Alex’s exaggerated chewing whilst confined to a hospital bed, which emerged largely as a reaction to Kubrick’s evident boredom with the scene’s dialogue. The actor summarises his brief as being to “play a rapist murderer who people like”. The fact Alex has some culture in his love for Beethoven helped but ultimately McDowell imbued him with a love for life, something that one has to admire on some level. Yet that is what drew such ire from many audiences, the New York Times calling Kubrick a fascist for making Alex likeable.

Alex DeLarge

Although the film makers played for humour, it didn’t take shape until they started filming. By modern standards the black comedy is self-evident, but McDowell recalls a New York audience watching in complete silence, whilst London offered only the occasional laugh — such was its uniqueness at the time. The home invasion sequence in particular could not have been done naturalistically, McDowell considers, “It would kill the film.” They spent five days shooting nothing, trying to work out how to create it. Kubrick eventually asked whether McDowell could dance, in response to which he launched into a spirited rendition of Singing in the Rain, replete with timed kicks. Kubrick was crying with laughter and, as McDowell tells it, immediately jumped into his car and drove home to purchase the rights to the song; it took them a further seven days to film the scene

Asked whether it was difficult to shoot the Ludovico technique, in which Alex is forced to watch a deluge of horrific footage with his eyes clamped open with ophthalmic forceps, McDowell responds enigmatically, “But I am Alex. If Alex is feeling pain then so was Malcolm,” before admitting candidly, “It was fucking horrible.” His eyes were anaesthetised for the shoot, meaning that he did not realise he had badly scratched his corneas until it wore off as he was driving home, in the worst pain he has ever felt. And then there were the reshoots…

The Ludovico Technique

Myth conceived notions

It is easy to forget that the film existed before punk, with a look that perhaps began to usher it in. The fashion was as improvisational as the acting, using cricket whites that McDowell had in his car, a protector that Kubrick suggested he wear on the outside as a codpiece, and a bowler as “a fuck you to the city”. The fake eyelashes began as a gag gift McDowell purchased for Kubrick, but after some experimentation they found the asymmetrical look of a single eye was suitably sinister.

McDowell recalls Anthony Burgess’ reason for writing the book, whilst noting in the same breath that the man was a pathological liar, making it impossible to know what was true. The story is that a Welsh doctor had told Burgess he had only nine months to live. Wanting to provide for his wife, Burgess rushed to write five books in that time. As publication approached and he was still alive, he realised he could not release them all simultaneously under his own name, so used pseudonyms instead. At the time he also worked as a newspaper literary critic and, as the books were not in his own name, they landed on his desk. He gave himself glowing reviews, before being fired once found out.

Addressing the mythology around the film’s limited availability in the UK until after Kubrick’s death, McDowell explains that A Clockwork Orange was never actually banned. A year after its release, as a result of several crimes allegedly copying elements of the movie, Kubrick and his family began receiving threats. Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from the UK market, a decision respected by the distributor until after his death. Invariably the lack of availability meant that people wanted it more.

He describes Kubrick as having paranoid tendencies, recalling visiting him at home to find the man sat by a stereo, intently listening to something through headphones. He silenced McDowell, who waited expectantly, imagining that he was probably listening to Beethoven for inspiration. Eventually Kubrick removed the cans and shook his head, “Another near miss at Heathrow.” He had been listening to air traffic control.

Malcolm McDowell Q&A

By the time the film was withdrawn, McDowell had moved to the USA, though he was disappointed that its cultural impact would not be experienced in the UK. American students embraced A Clockwork Orange for its style as well as the statement hidden beneath about freedom of choice. Although McDowell feels Burgess made things difficult for the audience by using an immoral man who makes bad choices, his own anti-establishment feelings ring out loudly in response to the film’s alternative of State control, “We know what happens when the State gets involved in anything. It’s a complete fuck up.” Here, its particular cruelty lay in stripping Alex of his pleasures, not just the antisocial ones but his love of music.

In closing, McDowell praises Kubrick’s genius as a film maker and waxed lyrical about 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I consider overrated despite its visual majesty. McDowell highlights its propulsion of science fiction beyond contemporary cardboard sets, describing it as the best cinematic experience one can have on the big screen. In fact, I do not disagree at all with his final assessment: “I don’t know what it’s about. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s 45 minutes before anyone speaks. But it’s genius.”

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