Around a month ago I was browsing Facebook when I noticed a suggested page on my news feed. The page was called RIP Gene Wilder. My first reaction was of shock. I had no idea that he had died. I decided to visit the page, which was filled with photos of Gene, and even featured a Twitter handle @RIPGeneWilder

After scrolling for a few seconds I realised from the irate comments from other Facebook users that Gene was in fact not dead at all, and that the page appeared to have been founded in 2013 after an internet hoax. However, it seemed that even though there was never any proof that Gene had passed, the founder refused to accept this and kept the page open as a sort of weird tribute to the great comic actor.

Despite comments from other users such as ‘Gene Wilder is alive and well. Making an RIP site for the man whilst he still is alive is an insult’, the creator continued to troll with statements such as ‘Still getting a lot of negative feedback from some of you.. May I ask where all this hatred is coming from?? I am probably rolling over in my grave.’ Gene was even location tagged as being in ‘Heaven’.

After hearing the news last night that Gene had actually died via a text from a friend, I thought how strange it was that I had visited that page so recently, and that I had been thinking about digging out my copy of Young Frankenstein a little earlier than usual for my annual Halloween viewing.

I’m not usually one to get upset over the deaths of celebrities, but somehow this seemed different. Gene was a favourite actor of mine, but he also seemed like a person I’d like to get to know. He eschewed fame, he was modest, he spoke articulately in interviews, he wrote beautifully. He was one of the few actors to feature in both a childhood favourite of mine – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – and a much-loved movie I first saw as a teenager, Young Frankenstein, the Mel Brooks spoof they co-wrote in 1974. If you haven’t seen it I suggest you find a copy immediately.

Although remembered for his comedy work with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, Gene could do neurotic, eccentric, tender, scary – who can forget his ire when Charlie Bucket drank those fizzy lifting drinks – and everything in between.

So thank you, Mr Wilder, for the laughs, and for the inspiration. RIP Gene. For real this time.

Fans might like to read this letter via Letters of Note he penned regarding Willy Wonka’s attire. I think it says a lot about him.

One of my favourite scenes from Young Frankenstein

 

 

 

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These Are the Damned, also known as The Damned, is a cult British movie from the 1960s set in Weymouth, starring Macdonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field and Oliver Reed. It happens to hold great appeal for me since I first saw it around seven years ago.

Based on the novel The Children of Light by H.L Lawrence and directed by Joseph Losey, These Are the Damned follows Joan (Field) and her overbearing, jealous brother, King (Reed), who follows her escape from Weymouth harbour with American tourist Simon (Carey). They uncover a group of children living in caves, who are cold-blooded and know little about the outside world. The children are radioactive and are being held by the government. Educated by television, they believe Joan and Simon have come to rescue them.

It’s a more unusual Hammer film, and one which splits opinion. I can only attribute the mood of the film, its seaside location and the presence of Oliver Reed to my liking These Are the Damned. The gang violence in this film – although much tamer I might add – was said to have influenced the droogs in A Clockwork Orange. The punk band The Damned took their name from this movie.

During a trip to Dorset I decided to stop in Weymouth to visit the seafront, which is integral to the plot.

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The Jubilee Clock Tower, erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria, appears in the opening scene where Joan (Field) and Simon (Carey) first meet.

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The Kings Statue, named for King George III, was built in 1810. This is the meeting place of King (Reed) and his cronies. They often sit on the lion and unicorn parts of the statue. There is now a fence surrounding this, in case you have similar whims.

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The song in the opening credits, Black Leather Rock, is repeatedly whistled and sung by the main characters throughout the film as a sort of calling card, and is a nod to the teddy boy movement prevalent at the time.

The opening scene of These Are the Damned (1963).

More Jolly creations.

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Things my talented friend has created for me over the past year.

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An embroidered fabric patch in grey and orange, depicting the cover of Anthony Burgess’ classic book, A Clockwork Orange. This is the image from the 1972 print designed by David Pelham. One of my favourite books and films.

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An origami raven created with delicate Japanese floral print paper.

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A ‘Steampunk Softie’ produced with the aid of this book. This Softie has been customised with personal touches such as a cameo button, and even comes with a name – Lenore Veidt (named for the Edgar Allan Poe poem and the actor Conrad Veidt) – and back story: she’s a detective!

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The legendary figure Pocahontas was born Matoaka in 1595 in Werowocomoco, Virginia. Most people know the Disneyfied version of Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, who spared the life of John Smith, an Englishman who captured Indians whilst trying to take over their land. This has never been verified, much like the exact location of her burial site.

After being captured by the English in 1613, she went on to marry an Englishman named John Rolfe, taking on the moniker Rebecca Rolfe. They had a son named Thomas in 1615.

Pocahontas died at age 22, in Gravesend, Kent, of unknown causes and was buried at St George’s Church.

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This statue commemorates her life.

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Photographs from the park at Virginia Water, Surrey, which is part of the Royal Landscape.

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The Cascade is a 10m tall waterfall built in the 1780s by Thomas Sandby, King George III’s architect, after the previous waterfall was destroyed in a storm in 1768.

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This totem pole is 100 foot high, erected in 1958 to mark the centenary of the establishment of British Colombia as a Crown Colony. Incredibly, it was carved from a single tree, a 600 year old Western Red Cedar from the forests of Haida Gwaii, 500 miles to the north of Vancouver.

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The park is home to many species of bird.

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Postcards I have added to my collection over the past six months.

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A miniature print of Messiah (1919) by Ernst Neuschul, an Austrian born painter associated with the New Objectivity movement. I purchased this from the New Walk Museum in Leicester, which holds many German Expressionist works – and those of a similar ilk – which I will write about in the near future. You cannot help but be pulled into this image, which is so unflinching and unapologetic. The figure reminds me of the singer Richard Hell.

 

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This is from a box of postcards of Penguin Classic covers, which I was able to purchase singly from Oxfam Books and Music. The novel is The Drowned World by JG Ballard. Ballard’s novels are mainly dystopian in style, his most famous works being Crash and Empire of the Sun. I haven’t read The Drowned World (yet), although I have read others of his, but the submerged image of the Chrysler building, combined with the strong colours, really spoke to me.

 

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I received this in the mail around a month ago. How exciting it was to receive. My friend was on holiday in Scotland and sent me this postcard of John Byrne’s Jock and the Tiger Cat (1968). It is from the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, where the painting is currently held. Byrne is a Scottish playwright and artist, probably most known for the television series Tutti Frutti starring Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson.

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The funfair is something I’ve spoken about a few times on this blog, so adding this image to my collection isn’t a great surprise. I like that the shot is slightly out of focus, connoting movement, that the top of the image almost looks tarnished, and the soft natural haze mingling with the neon lights. It reminds me of Coney Island.

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Whilst on a recent trip to Dublin, I stopped at the National Gallery of Ireland for a look at their current exhibition, Lines of Vision, curated to celebrate 150 years of the gallery. I purchased this postcard of a painting I was drawn to in the collection entitled Moonlight (1926) by Paul Henry. Henry was born in Belfast and was particularly fond of the West coast of Ireland, where he spent a great deal of time painting landscapes. I liked the simplicity of the work, and on a personal note it reminded me of sailing to Norway last year.

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Why did I feel the need to photograph this moment? I don’t know. I just knew I had to. I’m sure the other people on the platform found it strange that I was photographing a shiny red apple on the tracks. Could it be just that: the bright crimson juxtaposed with the grey of both the station and the banality of the situation. Waiting. And waiting. The apple: life. That life about to be wiped out in an instant by a passing train. The need to capture something that was finite. I couldn’t save the apple. I couldn’t give the apple its purpose: food, fuel. Did this apple have a higher purpose? Food wastage, yeh I get it. Life is short. Yeh, and that too. Beauty is fleeting. Come on. Pay attention to the little things. Look around you. (An apple is not). An epiphany. Get to the core of the issue. NO!

This is/is not an apple, Monsieur Magritte.

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If you’re already struggling to stick to your new year’s resolutions, take some inspiration from the movies. Whether it’s finding a new job, taking risks or embracing adventure, there’s a film to help see you through, well, until February at least.

Office Space (1999)

Stuck in traffic, headed for a job you despise, with bosses you despise even more, the joy of office politics and bureaucratic pettiness sucking the life out of you. You’re then trapped in a cubicle with not even a glimpse of daylight, being forced to work extra hours with nothing to look forward to.

Meet Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), Initech employee. Peter hates his life but finds it too hard to say no. When Initech hires consultants set on cutting the workforce, Peter (with a little help from a hypnotherapist) decides to take things in hand and royally screw them over.

No one’s suggesting you go to the criminal lengths of Peter and his disillusioned colleagues to get back at the company you loathe, but it might just give you the push to find a career you’re truly in love with.

 

About Schmidt (2002)

Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), 66 years old of Omaha, Nebraska pours out his feelings in letters to a Tanzanian orphan he sponsors through Childreach. He always dreamt of being someone, of owning his own business, of going places, but life sort of got in the way.

After he retires and his wife passes suddenly, he needs to re-evaluate his future and work out what to do with the rest of his life. Warren goes on a road trip in his RV, on a pilgrimage of sorts, and revisits his old stomping grounds. He tries to find meaning, some sort of significance to life, and learns a lot about himself.

About Schmidt is a great film to watch if you’re dealing with change, trying to work out what you really want from life, or struggling to see where your place is in the world.

 

Adaptation (2002)

Adaptation certainly has many life lessons to teach us. Charlie (Nicolas Cage) is a screenwriter who is struggling to come up with an adaptation of the best-selling book, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). As Charlie’s writer’s block deepens, his insecurities heighten and his self-loathing reaches a crescendo. If this wasn’t bad enough his less talented, over-confident twin brother, Donald (also played by Nicolas Cage), is offered big bucks for his hammy, clichéd thriller script.

Inspired by the real Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to adapt the book, this film is about taking risks, controlling your inner demons and ultimately avoiding winding up a walking cliché.

 

Mary and Max (2009)

A young Australian girl named Mary (Toni Collette) who is unhappy at home decides to write to a random person in an American phone book, who turns out to be a middle-aged New Yorker called Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Both are friendless with little hope for the future – Max is overweight and depressed and Mary’s parents have little time for her.

Battling loneliness and negative influences, they forge a connection and correspond for the next two decades. Despite their obvious differences, through their mutual support they work to change their paths. Mary and Max is about being spontaneous, trying to stay positive and making lasting connections.

 

Up (2009)

The young Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is one step ahead of most people – he’s found his soul mate early on and they settle in a lovely home. When life begins throwing them curve balls they stick together and work things through. However, their lifelong dream of visiting Paradise Falls in South America always seems just out of reach. When his wife Ellie passes away, Carl shuts himself off and fights to save his cherished home from demolition.

This poignant tale teaches us to embrace adventure and voyage into the world but ultimately to follow your dreams before it’s too late. Take that trip of a lifetime now. Find a way to make it happen. Don’t wait for a health scare, a relationship breakup or retirement to make changes or live the life you’ve always wanted.

A hot air balloon near Bournemouth beach

A hot air balloon near Bournemouth beach

The past 12 months have been fairly busy for me; I switched flats, got engaged, passed my driving test and started a new job. As well as these milestones, the highlights of the year for me were watching the Winter Olympics in February, visiting Norway in May, and continuing to be inspired by so many things, from window worshipping in Kent, to viewing incredible war art for the centenary, getting creative with my face, and nomadic felines on film.

I’m not sure what 2015 will bring, and I haven’t made any plans so far, but I hope to up my blog posts and go on a few more adventures.

Thank you to everyone who reads my blog. I appreciate the comments and follows so much. Have a great 2015 x

freaksI’ll admit that this is an odd topic for a post during the holiday season but an interesting one nonetheless. At Halloween, whilst re-watching the excellent Tod Browning film Freaks I recalled a post from last year entitled Zoetropes and Kinetoscopes – which I put together after visiting Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre – where I mentioned writing some articles about the history of the circus and its various offshoots, in particular the history of the freak show.

Over the following weeks a trend seemed to emerge featuring all things freaky, beginning with the fourth season of American Horror Story on FOX, which is entitled Freak Show (great concept, dull execution). FOX obviously decided that ‘freaks’ were in and aired a new reality documentary series called Freakshow, in which a man named Todd Ray and his family showcase their Venice Beach sideshow business, featuring his ‘freaky’ employees, including ‘The Lobster Boy’ and ‘The Human Pin Cushion’.

In the first episode Ray attempted to add America’s tallest man, George Bell (7 feet 8 if you’re interested), to his collection of freaks, a word that George was clearly uncomfortable with. Ray also wanted to sign up a bearded lady named Jess, and she was initiated in a scene straight out of Browning’s film (‘One of us! One of us!’). However, many of Ray’s ‘freaks’ are not actually freaks, in that their only ‘deformity’ appears to be the ability to inflict pain upon themselves in a Jackass-style manner.

‘Never seen before…’ Todd wailed as he enticed the public into his shop and displayed his two-headed bearded dragon for all to see. But we have seen it all before. Two-headed reptiles are surprisingly common. Due to fluctuations in temperature of the eggs – since, unlike bird eggs, they are not incubated – mutations can readily form. However, two-headed mammals are much less usual.

The recent death at age 15 of the cat Frankenlouie (Frank and Louie) in Massachusetts only added to the recent discussions concerning the strange and unusual. Contrary to popular belief, Frankenlouie did not have two heads but in fact two faces – a condition called diprosopia – although a creature exhibiting this mutation rarely survives beyond its first few days of life. Frankenlouie’s survival was an extremely rare case, much rarer than the mutation itself.

tomandbarnumAnother recent TV offering was BBC4’s The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar. Tom was one of the world’s most famous freaks, a young man of just over three feet in stature but with lofty ambitions.

Charles Sherwood Stratton aka Tom Thumb was born in Connecticut in 1838. He was ‘discovered’ by distant relative and circus impresario, PT Barnum, who christened him with the moniker ‘General Tom Thumb’ and made him fabulously wealthy. Tom began his travelling performing career at a very young age, under the pretence that he was on the cusp of adulthood at Barnum’s request. General Tom made friends in very high places, including Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, and his impressive former home is still intact.

 
History

According to Britannica, the term ‘freak’ comes from the Old English word ‘frician’, meaning to dance, cavort or any other capricious behaviour.

In the 18th century, ‘freaks’ or ‘freaks of nature’ referred mainly to animals, creatures whose physical make-up deviated from standard norms. Some naturalists collected these creatures and displayed them at touring shows, shocking the public with their ‘cabinets of curiosities’.

In the mid-nineteenth century, circus promoters had added human ‘performers’ to their exhibitions. PT Barnum was one such promoter, however, he did not use the term ‘freak show’. Alongside those with gigantism, dwarfism and the extremely hirsute, many of the performers were not what they seemed. For example, Barnum’s ‘Fiji Mermaid’ was merely a deceased monkey fused with the tail of a fish. There were many similar exhibits, and such promoters were subsequently labelled as frauds. Freak shows were a very American tradition, but one which permeated Europe and beyond.

 

On Film

I have included a selection of movies depicting freak shows, beginning with the seminal classic, Freaks (1932).

Can a fully grown woman truly love a midget? This, the question posed on the poster of Freaks. That midget is Hans (Harry Earles), a freak show performer, engaged to his height-matched co-star, Frieda (Daisy Earles). Despite their pending union, Hans’ head is turned by trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is of average height. The infamous wedding banquet scene is truly brilliant as Cleo’s true motives are revealed.

Before the cinematic screenings of the film, a message was displayed for patrons, which seemed sympathetic to the plight of individuals with deformities: ‘Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one’. However, towards the end of the prologue, it goes on to say ‘…modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.’ The effort of including such a message therefore seems inane, but during the 1930s people who were born with physical abnormalities were not readily accepted in mainstream society, hence the existence of the freak show. (The full message is included on the DVD).

The ‘freaks’ in Freaks are all real people – no special effects here – including a man named Rardion, ‘The Living Torso’, who had no limbs and performed in freak shows in Coney Island under PT Barnum. Despite his disability, he fathered five children, spoke four languages and was able to complete everyday tasks using his mouth and shoulders.

 
The Elephant Man (1980)

Based loosely on the life of Joseph (John in the film) Merrick, a young English man with neurofibromatosis, a disease which causes benign tumours to grow on the face and body. Whilst the film does stray from the truth – Joseph’s life during his freak show years was not nearly as awful as director David Lynch’s portrayal – it is a beautifully made, poignant film, with excellent performances by John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Dr Frederick Treves, the man who saves him from his barbaric existence.

 

Big Fish (2003)

Directed by Tim Burton and based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a film of tall tales told by Albert Finney (Ed Bloom) to his son, Will (Billy Crudup). The young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) disappears into his own fantasy and begins a lengthy journey with Karl the Giant (Matthew McGrory). On his expedition, he encounters a circus, led by a werewolf named Amos Callaway (Danny DeVito), and Siamese twin singers Ping and Jing (Ada and Arlene Tai). Edward subsequently joins the circus, shovelling elephant manure and washing obese performers in exchange for information on his dream girl, Sandra.