The Swallows of Summer

Are you heading off on holiday or into a traffic jam or both? Ted Hughes’s wonderful poem ‘Work and Play’ encapsulates the contradictory nature of this time of year – swallows soaring in the sky at work, and people stuck in cars on their way to play at the seaside. It inspired me to write the following piece, not quite a short story, not quite a travel article, but something between the two…

We spy on the lovers all week as they bill and coo as lovers do on holiday, sometimes soaring, sometimes squabbling, constantly embroidering strands of midnight and cream over the turquoise silk of the swimming pool. The garden rooms at Club Teos in Turkey are crisscrossed with balconies and terraces, draped with sweet-scented honeysuckle and purple bougainvillea; they offer the perfect refuge for young romeos and juliets. So why does this maverick pair of swallows choose to construct their nests on the fringing of the huge parasol shading the pool? Don’t the foolish birds realize they are doomed to disappointment?

The other swallows of summer – the sailors and windsurfers, the mountain-bikers and tennis players, the water-skiers and kayakers – are equally industrious, making their own patterns on the water and the land. The water-skiers sew silver threads across the empty early morning sea, while the mountain bikers, bursting out of their fluorescent lycra, power up the dusty Turkish tracks that duck and dive through villages and fields.

Mealtimes are a problem: the food delights the eye and seduces the tastebuds. Sumptuous buffets are set off by fantastical sculptures made from carrots, courgettes and aubergines; water melons are carved into intricate roses, pineapples transformed into a splash of sunrise, and seas of prawns, fish and shiny black mussels are netted into gleaming patterns.

‘Have you tried this grilled meat? It’s delicious with that spicy tomato sauce!’ We work hard at not eating too much and happily fail, tempting ourselves and each other. After all, so much activity needs to be fuelled and holidays are not the time for abstinence.

Within a day or so, faces have become familiar. Not just the lively, suntanned, sunbleached-blonde Neilson instructors – ‘Hi guys!’ – who urge us on to enjoy ourselves – ‘All right there guys?’ – but also our fellow hardworking hedonists. The slim tennis-playing sisters are out early on the courts, perfecting their serves and their slices, their wicked drop shots and cunning volleys. By 11 each morning the four genial ‘old salts’ with the alcohol-rounded bellies and sturdy legs of the lifelong sailor, are ensconced in the same easy chairs in the bar, from where they watch the dinghies dancing in the bay below and dissect their own past races in blow-by-blow accounts. Literally. The three young northern lads, freed from their computers for a week, never stir before lunchtime and are dozy as hair-gelled hedgehogs awaking from hibernation, but soon make up for lost time.
Neilson veterans, we are pacing ourselves, trying to resist the temptation to cram our day full from dawn to dusk and beyond. Some afternoons we do nothing but laze by the pool, watching the swallows darting in and adding to their home when they can seize the fugitive moments of quiet between the surfbusters and scuba-divers. Each night, the nest is cleaned off. Each morning, the swallows begin afresh.

There are other young lovers. He disappears off on challenging bike-rides. She sits by the pool, crocheting, conjuring a delicate web out of nothing. When a group of the tiny, sun-shielded ‘sea urchins’ march along chanting the ‘Grand Ole Duke of York’ with the cheerful Neilson girls and token guy, she casts them a thoughtful glance. At mid-morning she strolls to the shady bar, where the curly-haired Pan takes infinite pains in the preparation of her tricolour caffé latte. Then she sits looking out over the sea at the white triangles of sails, a wistful Penelope waiting for Odysseus.

On the last day we exert ourselves to borrow the mountain bikes and puff up the hill and through the tangy-smelling pinewoods, and then freewheel down, down, down the zigzagging road to the ruined remnants of an ancient city. Teos was once one of the 12 great cities of the Ionian Empire, built by workers as skilled and industrious as the swallows. Long vanquished, long vanished, like the swallows’ nest, most of it has been wiped away. All that survives is the temple to that god of wine and pleasure, Dionysus, surrounded by drunken olive trees. No protected site this, but a heap of carvings and pediments and pillars jumbled carelessly together, its only guard a huge old dog with a spiked collar, who dozes in the sunshine. We drift through the ruins like ghosts, and the golden guardian never raises his heavy head. Under the spell of the jovial god we lose ourselves awhile, laying on the sun-warmed stones, listening to the soughing of the silence, rediscovering our past.

The last night means certificates, congratulations and farewells. We will all be heading back to the cooler northern climes soon. Back to work, back to unreal lives never as vivid as this one. Looking over towards the pool we see the swallows have been tireless: there is a long tangle of mud and dried grasses, swaying in the evening breeze. At a neighboring table our Penelope is sitting with her husband, one hand in his. The words ‘next year’ and ‘kids’ clubs’ waft towards us with the scent of evening honeysuckle.

It is said that in their lifetimes the distance swallows fly is to the moon and back, and yet time and again they return to the same place to build their nests. Perhaps they are not so foolish after all. In the seasons to come, will they still be wheeling and squealing over the pool, delighting another audience with their daring acrobatics?

There is only one way to find out.

Posted in Short story, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How tennis balls can help your writing

‘Sometimes I bounce back. Sometimes it’s more of a dull thud.’

That’s what the heroine in a novel I recently submitted says, and if it strikes a chord with you, you’re not alone. As a writer, not so long ago one of the sounds I dreaded most was that dull thud through the letterbox heralding yet another rejection of my precious manuscript.

So how do you transform dull thuds into bouncing back?

That’s where the latest buzzword comes in. That oh-so-virtuous 20th-century ‘perseverance’ has given up, the environmentally-PC ‘sustainable’ is, sadly, dying out, and in the brutally tough and always uncertain world of today, ‘resilience’ is the word you will now hear again and again. (Haven’t come across it yet? Now you’ve read my random jossings, bet you will hear it all the time!)

In business, in the environment, and in people, resilience has become a part of the language and the key to evolution and survival, whether you are talking about a company that is struggling to stay afloat, a political leader crossing the floor more times than the road, or an ash tree suffering from disease.

For writers, the quality of resilience has always been vital, but in life and in writing, how do you keep bouncing back?

Let’s take a closer look at that bouncing ball. Let’s make it a tennis ball, since Wimbledon is almost on us. I’m going to argue that it needs three things in order to keep bouncing. (And here I will beg the many physicists amongst my readers to excuse this decidedly non-scientific analysis that follows.)

The first thing a good tennis ball needs is air inside it, but also air around it. [Another word that has always intrigued me is ‘inspiration’ – literally, the taking in of air. But that’s for another blog.] When I have a setback, I find I need some space to take in air, to let myself breathe before I start focusing on moving forward.

But then, without some force propelling it, the ball simply dribbles to a standstill, air or no air. So once I have taken a few breaths, physically and metaphorically, I need to get tough with myself and knock myself back into play. This is where resilience starts coming in. If it’s a writing rejection, I will go and sit in front of the computer and put my fingers on the keyboard. I know from years of experience, if I do this, sooner or later I will start typing again. And then I will start writing.

And finally, if that ball – and me – are going to make that winning shot, it needs to be aimed in the right direction. If shots are missing their target or are getting returned all too swiftly, I try to modify my aim or consider a different angle or change my forehand to a lob. I might lose the next point, but at least I am still playing.

Successful entrepreneurs know all about resilience. So do successful tennis players. And so do successful writers.

But my inbox has just pinged (are the dull thuds of rejection a thing of the past?) and I’ve got a response to my submission. In case rain is about to temporarily stop play, have you got any strategies you can share with me on resilience?

Posted in Ravings and Musings (after Montaigne), Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

When the romance is dying…

This month I’m guest blogging at Savvy Authors on what to do when your romance is dying…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Retro food – a personal flavour

In all fashions or fads — whether music, art or clothes — a trend rarely arrives fully fledged, and like leggings or high heels, keeps on returning. To me, retro food is dishes from approximately the end of rationing in the early 1950s.

I was a cook for a care home for eight years and while the elderly residents tolerated small helpings of old-fashioned food, such as shepherd’s pie, liver and bacon, roasts, steak and kidney pie, toad-in-the-hole and fish pie, what they enjoyed the most were large helpings of trifle, sponge pud, Bakewell tart, Queen of Puddings, egg custard, and rice pudding – all of them with lashings of Bird’s Custard.

Traditionally in England we have always been particularly good at puddings. Various versions have been available to everyone since sugar became cheaper in the C17th and C18th centuries. England has always had plenty of different fruits, and we have flour, milk, fat and eggs. The many combinations we have devised celebrate these ingredients, such as fruity summer pudding, and – to keep the cold at bay – fruit pies and crumbles. Thrift plays a part: money-saving cooks fill people up cheaply with suet puds, and use up leftovers in skilful concoctions such as bread and butter pudding or treacle tart. No surprise then, that today there are pudding clubs all over England, such as the one in the Assembly Rooms in Norwich.

Currently there is a glut of retro cookery programmes on the TV, demonstrating the familiar and neglected local favourites, such as rabbit stew, as well as a revival in popularity of vintage recipes ranging from the home-grown dishes of Mary Berry, Marguerite Patten and Fanny Craddock, to those of the Mediterranean-inspired Elizabeth David and the American Julia Childs.

Although many of the dishes still sound and are tasty, I have also come across a ghastly and garish selection, mainly quivering in aspic and gelatine, including jellied gazpacho, apple and tomato moulds, ham or chicken in aspic, and a fiesta tart – a version of quiche decorated with prawn heads, complete with beady black eyes and whiskers.

Why is there such a retro-revival at the moment? Words that spring to mind are recession, comfort and nostalgia. We don’t even have to make the old-fashioned dishes – as a nation we may love watching cookery programmes but surveys tell us that viewers do just this – view not create. Instead supermarkets manufacture their own versions of old favourites. Compared with the past, they are now easy to buy ready-made and can work out cheaper, as anyone who has made a booze-soaked Christmas cake knows. Today’s generations tend to be more sedentary than previous ones, and often more health-conscious. Yet many of us have a weakness for filling, stodgy, easy-to-eat food, while being all too well aware that plates of balsamic-glazed rocket and raw fish are a whole lot healthier for our hearts and waistlines.

Bad Blood, Lorna Sage’s autobiography, describes growing up in the 50s and early 60s, what a rotten cook her mother was, and how — like mine —she was delighted when fish fingers, Angel Delight and Arctic Roll hit the supermarket shelves. What transports me back in time is tinned fruit with evaporated milk, Bovril gravy, macaroni cheese, jam roly-poly (with so little jam you had to search hard for it), chicken, pigeon or rabbit stew with pearl barley (aka ‘little bottoms’) and – a Big Treat – the rustle of purple paper covering a big bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut which Dad would produce with a flourish on Saturday evening as we sat round the black-and-white TV watching ‘Dixon of Dock Green’.

How about you? What are your foodie memories?

Guest blog by Pandora, a Norfolk ‘foodie’.

Posted in Ravings and Musings (after Montaigne) | Tagged , | Leave a comment

In defence of January

January is the bad-boy month of the year, the one so many people love to hate.  Not me; like most romantic novelists, I’ve always had a weakness for a rake who’s just waiting for a brave, beautiful and probably poor heroine to come along and reform him. January too, I maintain, needs such a woman (moi?) who understands him and can persuade others to view him differently. With what is reputed to be the most depressing day of the year about to dawn (tomorrow—Blue Monday), what better time to do so?

Unfortunately when I announced to my tennis partner that I was writing my next blog in defence of January, her response was not encouraging. “Well, that will be a short one.”


It’s easy to see why so many people dislike January. It’s the coldest month of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and the hottest in the Southern. At the time of writing, you can take your pick; sweltering heatwaves and bushfires in Australia, or freezing temperatures, snowbound airports and treacherous roads in Europe. It was on 9 January 1799 that income tax was first introduced (a temporary measure, of course; in fact it’s still only temporary), and on 1 January 1931 that traffic police came into being. As if that were not enough, 31 January is the dreaded Self-Assessment day in the UK, by which date all the hard-working self-employed have to pay their largest tax bill of the year.

Cynics point out that the ancient Romans (them again) named January after the two-faced god Janus, and even today Janian or Janus-faced has the negative connotations of two-faced, hypocritical and deceitful.

‘You’ve got it all wrong!” I cry in defence of my poor misunderstood January. “He’s not like that at all.”

Take the Janus bit. Janus has two faces because he is the guardian of doors. He’s looking forward and looking back, and January is the month of the year when we have the time (and often the weather) to do exactly that. January gives us the space to reflect on the year gone past, and the year to come, before we plunge into the hurly-burly of the succeeding months which speed by all too thoughlessly. Janus is all about the spirit of opening. Without old Janus looking out for us, it might be difficult to open that door let alone step through it.

What else is there to praise about January? There’s the snow of course, which so often falls in January. Like the Japanese artists who used the light reflected from the snow to create their exquisite woodcuts, I love the snow! Think snowmen, and skiing, and hot chocolate, and the way snow can transform a grubby world. The birthstone for January is garnet, which represents constancy. It is in January that we usually see those first promises of spring – the yellow aconites with their green ruffs, and the delicate snowdrops.

Blue Monday often falls on St Agnes’s Eve (‘Ah! Bitter chill it was!’), the inspiration for Keats’s wonderful poem of the same name, and giving maids down the centuries the opportunity to dream of their future husbands. It is also the month in which so many creative people have been born, including Mozart, Robbie Burns (Burns Night is yet another reason to celebrate January), AA Milne and Louis Braille. Bye the bye, that’s another reason I like January; it just happens to be my birth month (us creative Aquarians), also that of my son.

Have I said enough to convince you to see January in a new (possibly snowy?) light? If so, fling open that door to the year ahead and step on through it. Janus is watching your back for you.

Joss Alexander

Aside | Posted on by | 1 Comment

Best Indie film of 2012 — Beasts of the Southern Wild

Storming through this year’s independent film festivals, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the surprisingly wonderful feature from first-time director Benh Zeitlin. Having wowed critics enough to be placed highly on ‘Film of the Year’ lists, and with heavyweight endorsements from President Obama and Oprah Winfrey ensuring the public vote, it seems firmly on the road to Oscar success. Funded by Cinereach, a nonprofit organisation offering finance and mentorship to artful young filmmakers, and the first feature-length project to be supported by Court 13, a grassroots community group of filmmaking artists, its story of triumph over the odds is as much about the film’s warm reception on the international stage as its young protagonist.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is arguably a dystopian fantasy although its realism is extremely close for comfort. It’s completely plausible that a whole forgotten strata of lower class citizens live in poverty beyond the New Orleans levées, a community proud and strong with its own authentic culture, patois and identity. And it is with New Orleans – its devastation in the face of Hurricane Katrina and its continuing aftermath – that this film so closely aligns itself in character and setting.

The inhabitants of The Bathtub, a small island deep in a Louisiana bayou, live in dilapidated shacks with the certain and unquestioned knowledge that their land will disappear beneath the rising waters sooner or later. And yet there is passion, humour and friendship within the community. The natural landscape comes alive with visually stunning cinematography; colourful and terrible, it’s a main character in itself and the inhabitants of The Bathtub live harmoniously alongside and within it; this is their home. The water threatens their very existence, but it’s not their enemy— that role belongs to the distant gleaming towers of industry, glimpsed over stolen trips to the levées, and with whom they have an uneasy relationship.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in her own wooden shack and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in his. She stomps around The Bathtub in her wellies and he holds her at arm’s length. Mourning the departure of her mother years before and hiding his failing health, Wink dispenses a cool, absent type of parenting, doggedly determined to instil in his daughter the courage and durability she needs to be “Queen of the Bathtub”. But it’s not without love, and there are some especially poignant moments such as when Wink tries to teach Hushpuppy how to survive when he is no longer there to provide for her. It is the complex relationship between the father and daughter that grounds the film.

The titular beasts stalk Hushpuppy throughout the film as imaginary manifestations of her powerlessness in the face of events beyond her control; their eventual subjugation is essential if she is to face her new world alone.

It’s rare to find an actress so young who can give a performance as stunningly assured as this, but Quvenzhané Wallis does it with ease and it will probably be remembered in years to come as one of the best child performances of all time. But we should also give credit to Dwight Henry who is quite remarkable, taking a difficult, damaged character and making him not just sympathetic, but admirable. It’s even more incredible to think that neither actor has had any professional training or experience, yet both inhabit their roles so naturally.

Beautifully filmed and scored, this is without doubt a gorgeous film that will hold you enthralled from start to finish.

Guest blog written by Melody Fuller, self-confessed film addict

Posted in Book and film reviews | Leave a comment

Round robin

Dear Derek

I can’t believe it’s that time of year again,  and that here I am, once more sending my Christmas greetings. I’m sure you’ll understand when you see this rather impersonal word-processed letter – they’re awful aren’t they? But they’re such a good way of making sure everyone is up-to-date with everything. 

Not that I would ever accuse you of not being up-to-date! I’m always hearing about you in the news and I’m delighted that you’re doing so well. I’m not surprised. I knew from the moment I first met you – when I watched you dive into the hotel swimming pool all those years ago – that you were a winner. I marked you down for success then, and I was right wasn’t I? The papers say that you’re tipped to be the next MD. It’s what you always wanted isn’t it? You’ve worked so hard. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that nothing – no nasty revelations on Twitter! – will ruin your chances.  

I also saw the article with that lovely photo of Miranda and the boys. She looks so beautiful and serene – I don’t know how she does it. But I can appreciate that it would be difficult to be anything but calm in that idyllic old manor house you’ve just bought. When I was a little girl I used to dream of a house like that. Your boys are looking so grown up. Jessica, of course, is growing too – she’s about the same age as your eldest. Coming up for 14 and getting more expensive by the day! If it’s not one thing it’s another – there’s always something she needs. I can’t give her as much as I’d like, but I try to make sure she isn’t deprived of the basics. Christmas, of course, is a worry. Everything costs so much. Jessica is very good, but it’s hard for her when she sees other kids getting things. Like your sons. I try to explain about being a single parent but it’s not always easy, especially with the latest cuts.

Funny how life turns out isn’t it? I never imagined that I’d end up living in an inner city flat and forced to be dependent on handouts.  But a single youthful mistake and no proper career and that’s it. Still I mustn’t complain, we make our beds and we have to lie on them. And I’ve never regretted lying on that particular bed…

And the pictures in the magazine of you all on holiday! Mauritius wasn’t it? Jessica and I managed a very nice caravan holiday in Clacton – it was just a shame it rained all the time. It seems so long since I felt that warm Mediterranean sun on my limbs. Years in fact. I often remember that wonderful holiday in Tuscany – the sun, the wine, the luscious fruits. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted grapes that were quite so sweet…You always liked grapes didn’t you?

Gazing out into the dark December night, it gives me so much pleasure to recall those carefree days – and those passionate nights! I remember every detail so vividly – and if I didn’t, I’ve still got the photographs to remind me. I blush when I look at them.

Still if life doesn’t turn out quite how we’d hoped, we’ve only got ourselves to blame haven’t we? I don’t intend to be stuck for ever though. I’m starting a little business doing websites and such. One of my clients, a journalist, says I’ve got a real flair for explaining things and I ought to try writing an blog. Getting known is the difficult thing. Getting publicity.

Of course, I’ve got Jessica. Despite the financial difficulties of being a single parent I can truly say I’ve never regretted my decision to have her. She’s such a lovely girl – I’m sure you – and perhaps your family? – would love to meet her. Perhaps this time I should insist we get together in the new year – instead of just scribbling it on a Christmas card?

Anyway, I’d better get this off. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that all goes well for you and that nothing occurs to mar your chances of success. As for me, I manage, as I said, with the odd handout. I do appreciate them so. Without them, I don’t know who I’d turn to. The newspapers perhaps?  Looking forward to receiving your card – you’re so kind and generous. As ever, I wish you a peaceful, trouble-free and very very prosperous 2013.

All my love


I read my letter through with a feeling of deep satisfaction. I do so love getting in touch with old friends at Christmas. It evokes so many happy memories and ensures a contented future. And that’s the great thing about these ‘round robbing’ Christmas letters on the word processor. You make a few changes here and there – alter the names and the dates and the places – and you have a new, completely personal letter. It saves so much time. If I’m quick I can do one more and then I must book my ski-ing holiday in St Moritz. 

Dear Ian

I can’t believe it’s that time of year again,  and that here I am, once more sending my Christmas greetings. I’m sure you’ll understand when you see this rather impersonal word-processed letter – they’re awful aren’t they? But they’re such a good way of making sure everyone is up-to-date with everything. 

Joss Alexander hasn’t written any round robin or even round robbing letters this year, but is concentrating on writing the sequel to her historical mystery novel, Tainted Innocence

Posted in Short story, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Time — and time again

What is the shape of time? Scientists and philosophers have spent years (and huge research budgets) debating this, and come up with countless theories but no hard-and-fast conclusions. Writers explore time in other ways.

Emily Brontë was one of the first novelists credited with tearing up the linear structure and fragmenting past, present and future in Wuthering Heights. Since then, other writers have contributed their perspectives. In The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier, that much underrated writer, dealt with the frustrating and addictive nature of time travel, while J B Priestley’s play, Dangerous Corner, tantalises its audience with the looping nature of time: can it be replayed? John Wyndham, whose disturbing predictions of the future send a chill down my spine as I see them unfold around me, wrote an intriguing book of short stories, Consider Her Ways and Others, most of which explore aspects of time. Try his reworking of the Dr Faustus myth in ‘A Long Spoon’ and the leap-frogging of time in ‘Odd’.

Time fascinates me; not just the varying speed of time (why did that hour in the exam speed by so swiftly while the one when you are waiting for your lover is interminable?) but also the perennial problem of where have the weeks and months gone? (A particularly relevant question when we reach this season of the year. Let’s not go there — it’s a waste of time.) Inevitably, I have a penchant for time-slip novels and this autumn two new ones have been published.

The first is by Barbara Erskine, that doyenne of the time-slip genre. I have read — and enjoyed — all her books, and her latest, River of Destiny (HarperCollins), is no exception. Like many of her previous novels, the setting is East Anglia and this one particularly appealed to me as it is takes place in a part of Suffolk that I know well, around Woodbridge and the River Deben, where ancient past and modern present co-exist. In River of Destiny she draws on the eerie atmosphere that still pervades the area surrounding the Sutton Hoo burial site. She builds depth and suspense into the two main story lines by expertly plaiting in other strands including the memories that old buildings retain, no matter how stylish the architectural conversion, and the exhilaration and danger of sailing around the unforgiving coasts of the UK, one minute in command of the seas and the winds, the next fearing for your life as the icy waves splash threateningly over the bow. Brr…I’ve been there. Give me the Greek islands any day! A great novel to devour on a dark winter’s night, but in the warm comfort of your sitting room, of course, with a glass of red wine close to hand.

A more recent newcomer to the time-slip genre — but a very successful one — is Pamela Hartshorne with Time’s Echo (Pan Books). Her novel cleverly interweaves tragedies of the past and the present against a backdrop of the beautiful city of York. Pamela Hartshorne is an academic historian, but never lets her passion for history overpower the storytelling; instead she uses her knowledge to create a convincing world. Both of her heroines are flawed — aren’t we all? — but engaging. We can sympathise with their frustration at past actions — why on earth did we have to go and do that? —  even while knowing there is nothing as destructive of time as regret, since we are powerless to go back a year, a day or even an hour to do things differently. I also particularly liked the way the author depicts the way time challenges and changes the way lust and love unfold and our perceptions of both. Time’s Echo is a beautifully written novel.

A final word…both these titles were published in the early autumn and I did intend to write these reviews earlier. Apologies. I don’t know where the time went.

Joss Alexander, whose novel of Tudor Cambridge, Tainted Innocence, was inspired by walking into the past

Posted in Book and film reviews, Ravings and Musings (after Montaigne) | Leave a comment

September Film Review — Untouchable

It seems an unlikely hit—a French comedy about a quadriplegic—but Untouchable (2012) is now the number one top-grossing French-produced film ever made. Worldwide it has sold three times as many tickets as the Oscar-winning The Artist, its closest competitor. Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, astonishingly this film, which has grossed over $366m, was made on a shoestring budget of $10.5m.

What could be the secret of its success? Well, for a start, it’s a very good film: bleakly comic, heart warming and tragic all at the same time. The plot centres on a wealthy upper-class man, Philippe (Francois Cluzet) who has been left completely paralysed from the neck down. Unable to come to terms with his new life, he alienates those around him, and gets through personal carers in record time. At the latest round of interview screenings (brilliantly depicted with throwaway lines) he meets Driss (Omar Sy), a disadvantaged immigrant, petty thief and ex-con. Driss has been forced into applying for a job he knows he won’t get, so he can claim benefits. Despite his rough edges—or is it because of them?—Philippe sees something in him, and employs him against the advice of his friends, family and carers.

The plot of the film is simple, even predictable, but being able to guess what is likely to happen does not detract from watching it unfold. From the growing friendship of these two characters, both with their own problems and disadvantages, a true camaraderie is born. Driss never sees Philippe as disabled—sometimes to the point of shockingly comic callousness—and Philippe revels in being treated without deference, and as a human being, instead of as an invalid. At the same time Philippe has a massive impact on Driss. But how long can such a tenuous relationship last?

What makes this film so extraordinary is that it is not just manufactured rags-to-riches Hollywood-style fluff. It is based on a true story, and the film highlights this very cleverly at the end. But even beyond this fact what shines though is the quality of the acting and the way the film allows the audience to laugh at some of the more ludicrous problems of those who live with such disabilities, but in doing so it provides a deeper and truer understanding of what they have to face up to on an hourly or daily basis. 

Untouchable is a film that is truly worth seeing, and one that is enjoying very well deserved global success.

Written by Julian Harris.

Posted in Book and film reviews | 1 Comment

And no, it’s not Valentine’s Day

Orchids are strange exotic creatures—my mother always mistrusted them, much preferring the less suggestive bloom of the English rose. ‘Besides,’ she used to say, misquoting Alice, ‘What’s the use of a flower without any scent?’ Prophetic words, for when she lost her sight, the flowers that gave her the most pleasure were inevitably the scented ones: the sweet fragrance of freesias, the fresh, green scent of lily of the valley—and roses, of course. 

I am not so sure. Last week, after six months in residence, the flowers on my orchid said farewell, withered and died. How can the same blossom last six months? I was bereft. Every morning those perfect, erotic shapes had greeted me, as pristine and poised as Japanese geishas. Few flowers endure so faultlessly—poinsettas take one look at me, shudder and drop their leaves, and my roses feed five thousand greenfly. 

To my mind, only the lily rivals the orchid in exotic—and erotic—elegance, with its creamy voluptuous flowers tinged with pink, and that rich, heavy scent that you either love or loathe. I delight in a room filled with the fragrance of fresh lilies, but understand why this flower is too often associated with death —after all,
‘The sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds,
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’

The potential corruption of something that is good is one of the themes in my novel,  Tainted Innocence, and also runs through the delicately traced The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, published last year. I related to Diffenbaugh’s novel as it focuses on the complexities of mother—daughter relationships and their shared love of flowers. I loved the way the story was put together like a bouquet, with unusual foliage and some sharp thorns, as well as clever insights into the forgotten language of flowers that the Victorians so delighted in. 

So no, it’s not February 14 but in my book, flowers are for every day, not just for Valentine’s. And can be sent to men, as well as women. But the next time you give flowers—especially roses—you would be well advised to check on their meaning. 

After all, yellow roses could be fatal.

Joss Alexander, brickbats, bouquets and comments welcomed! Which flower would you most like to receive and why?

Posted in Ravings and Musings (after Montaigne) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment