Chick Lit 1860s-style

Another afternoon when I should be working, and chose to spend it in the company of M E Braddon, instead.  If you don’t know M E Braddon, you surely should.   One of the most prolific female authors of the 19th century, she published over 80 books, 3 of which are still in print.  Sensation Press have done their best to resurrect her thrillers, but there’s still another 77 texts which remain out of the reach of readers, unless you’re a member of the London or similar other university-quality library.

She writes thrillers about bigamous marriages, murders, headstrong female anti-heros (usually with that indication of Victorian female impropriety – red hair), and early female detectives.  The daredevil plots, destruction of families, suggestion of sexual impropriety and basic unruly ladies would be enough to make the scripts of “Dynasty” look like “Anne of Green Gables”.  I bought a cheap Wordsworth Classics version of it one day in Waterloo and decided to read the first page whilst waiting for a friend outside the Old Vic –  I stood there and read the first three chapters and finished it about three days later, having found it utterly un-put-downable.  Most of what Braddon does is from the standard sensation thriller genre and borrowed directly from Wilkie Collins – who remains the master at this type of literature (more of him later in this blog, I imagine).  Although it is obvious from the books that Braddon was writing and publishing very quickly – flinging out at least two thrillers a year for most of her career, that doesn’t stop it from being pleasurable.  In fact, the slight trash element of them is what makes her novels so much fun to read.  These novels were written to make the reader’s hair stand on end. If you want to find out how 1860s housewives got their kicks pour a strong tea, recline on the chaise longue and cop a load of Braddon.  Free to read on Google Books here:

88 miles per hour?!

This is more than just a trilogy.  This is a superb cure for all known ills, and quite possibly the most robust comic science fiction trilogy it has been my good fortune to come across.   I first saw Back to the Future on a hot balmy day in July 1987 and it is unblemished by time.  The second part of the trilogy I saw at the now defunct Cannon Cinema in Watford (before someone had the good idea of demolishing it) and for the third one I returned to the same, now demolished, cinema with my parents and got told off by the man who owned the Italian restaurant next door, because I selfishly dumped my empty popcorn box into his pot plants.  Halcyon days. 

The cinema now languishing in the distorted memories of those in West Watford and which was demolished in the mid-1990s is here, in all it’s glory:

Christ, it’s beautiful.  It looked a lot like that when it was open (but with more protective metal sheeting).  but it took nothing away from the sheer glamour of Back to the Future II.  Very little could.

The beauty of The Back to the Future trilogy was that it gamely cashed in not only teenagers, but their parents too.  The original film, released in 1985, glanced back to the 1950s with a particular 1980s slant, much as Peggy Sue Got Married tried to do in 1986, but Peggy Sue failed miserably in a nonsensical closing section involving in the following order: Freemasonry, sex in greenhouses, a man in a scary cloak and Nicholas Cage in an even scarier beard.  Back to the Future excelled because it had more charm, was superbly funny and briskly confused us with bizarre 1980s teen-flick science. 

Oh, how we chuckled at the Oedipal nastiness of Marty McFly being sexually harassed by his own mother. And how we nodded sagely when we noted the son teaching the father life skills, or when the mad scientist turned out to be the sanest one of all.  What we didn’t nod sagely at, however, was that Marty McFly’s girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, changed heads between movie No 1 and movie No 2.  in the first film she was played by an actress with a background in opera called Claudia Wells, who was seamlessly replaced by Elisabeth Shue, amidst rumours that the first actress had had some kind of nervous seizure.   For those who wish to time travel back to 1985 in order to time travel to 1955 : here are some sights for sore eyes: 

Here is Marty trying not to be seduced by his mother in 1955 Hill Valley.

Imitation Marty
Now, this is not a real Marty.  This is a Marty suit.  Which you can actually buy for $29.99.  Price does not include quizzical question of Californian teen bamboozled by notion of time travel.


This is a confused looking Biff Tannen – high school bully, and Lorraine Baines-chasing lunatic who George McFly quite sensibly smashed the jaw of during the high school dance.  Here he is in all his green tracksuited glory in 1985 Hill Valley looking like an old lady.  He is pretending to wax a BMW in his servile role as George McFly’s slavey. 

Doc Brown.  He’s gorgeous with a capital “G” , isn’t he? Oh, hang on – I meant him:

Michael J Fox – blessed by shortness of stature and prettiness of face, he was able to spend most of the 1980s playing 17 year olds, and no one seemed to mind that he was rapidly approaching thirty.  A small chap with a very large pay packet.  Oh, think of the horror had the initial casting director’s desire of Eric Stolz actually happened – Jesus, ladies – think of it! Thank goodness they saw the light, and realised the future was M J Fox.  Eric Stolz, on the other hand, appeared to have fallen through a space time continuum all of his own since Memphis Belle.


Lady on the left is Jennifer No 1 from the first film.  Lady on the right in appalling “Jennifer 1” wig is Jennifer No 2 from the second and third films.  Marty McFly certainly didn’t seem able to tell them apart.  Both of them struggled with a vastly underwritten role and an unfortunate propensity to wear body warmers.


Here is Marty McFly, the hip hepcat, teaching those square kids of the 1950s what la Rock and Roll was really all about. What it was about was ruining the palpable tension of an excellent plot by indulging the young star by letting him do his 50s rocker impression.  It did, however, provide relief from the bizarre oedipal complexes that ran riot through the movie.  At the moment Marty sings this his parents have – mercifully – decided to only fancy each other.  This is Marty’s “Phew, I’m off the hook” song.  God, he’s hip.  Nice shoes.

And if you thought those shoes were cool, check out these self-lacing 2015 power sneakers.  You better. We’re all going to be wearing them in about four years (apparently).  These are the real size.  MJ Fox is rather small:

Here is Marty buzzing around the Twin Pines Mall in 1985 California, presumably the only place in a Southern Californian town where there is enough space to get up to 88 miles per hour.  And he gets to be chased by Libyans, another hugely unlikely scenario for Hill Valley, where the most exciting thing that happened to date was George McFly getting his tie caught in his typewriter.

It wasn’t meant to be a trilogy at all.  The last scene of the first movie, in which Doc, Marty and Jennifer take to the skies in a bid to go to the future to save their children, was a joke.  Robert Zemeckis must have broken out in a cold sweat when he had to try to make sense of that final scene from the first movie as the opening one of the second.  Subsequently, early on in the second film, Jennifer, being surplus to the plot, is mercilessly dumped in an alley and drugged so that the Doc and Marty can continue their adventures through time.  Nice.  In addition, you needed A Level knowledge of Back to the Future Part I to even know part of what was going on in Back to the Future Part 2 because the plot was so convoluted.  It’s the weakest of the bunch.  Thank goodness Back to the Future Part 3 returned to class form with a formulaic Western, and tied up the loosening plot points quite nearly.  It’s amazing what you can do with 1.21 gigawatts, kids.

And so the bratpack lost one of its cubs this morning with the untimely demise of Corey Haim, which meant I spent most of my bus journey to work wondering if any of the others were dead yet.   I don’t think any of them are, although it astonishes me that Charlie Sheen is still with us – what with his fiancee accidentally shooting him several years ago and his recent stroke, but there he is, all chin and eyebrow comedy in “Two and a Half Men” (presumably he is the “half”).  He is still the boy who likes to P-A-R-T-Y, despite his father’s best attempts to steer him towards the straight and narrow.  Charles ‘Hellraiser’ Sheen aint no straight and narrow guy; he’s two busy fathering babies with ladies who have their own TV shows.   Emilio Estevez went all serious, tried to pretend he wasn’t short, grew a moustache and made a film about Robert Kennedy, and Kiefer Sutherland eventually had to go to television – and make 24 – to gain full credibility, acquiring on the way I think a little plastic surgery on his chipmunk jowls.  Lou Diamond Philips La-Bamba’d off the Bratpack stage in about 1992 and has been seen in a host of TV movies ever since, and what of Ralph Macchio?  Did he Karate chop his way into the Millenium?  I doubt it.  He’s probably working in a Juice Bar somewhere, which isn’t like being dead, but you can see it from there.    Then there was Corey Feldman, the Haim’s closest friend and fellow Lost Boys vampire slayer.  Presumably his latest show, The Two Coreys may have to be shelved for a while.  So, a couple of career suicides, but is this the first Bratpack death?

From this...

The two Coreys.  He’s the one on the right, by the way, with the Helen Shapiro hair-do.

After the supreme heights of The Lost Boys,  Haim and Feldman continued to be part of the “Two Coreys for the price of One” deal and made this film about two young chaps and a motorcar:

Not long after the release of this, and his curious self-penned mini-biopic, “Me, Myself and I”, Corey’s motorcar unfortunately ended up in a permanent parking space at rehab beside Charlie Sheen.  He seemed to be in and out of it for the next fifteen years,  until he faintly resurrected himself with The Two Coreys.  Oh well.  My heart goes out to all those Corey Haim look-a-likes who must feel like all those Princess Diana look-a-likes did on the morning of September 1st 1997, and who now have to find someone else to look like.  Although in the end even Corey Haim was struggling with looking  like himself.  To go from:  


is most certainly a tragedy. 

Keifer Sutherland, on the other hand, has gone from looking dreadful and pasty:

See full size image

To looking very dapper and tanned, with or without his two, large dangling gongs here:

See full size image

Is Kiefer Sutherland the Dorian Gray of the bratpack?

Green and pleasant land

For someone who used to be in theatre, I am rarely in a theatre.  I just am too lazy to go, but last night I bothered and I’m glad I did.  Jerusalem has transferred from the Royal Court to the West End, and I should have been early to meet my husband, but instead I was late, bombing it up St James’s Street in the freezing cold, lightly sweating and swearing at 7.20pm watching my pre-theatrics drinkie disappear before my eyes. 

I didn’t look attractive; my rheumatism was kicking in to my left hip and I was cross and unkempt.  Anyone who runs wearing heels looks like a giraffe in difficulty.  Imagine my surprise at getting wolf whistled at, whilst I was running like a rheumatic retard along Piccadilly. I got to the theatre in the end, my husband was early – and I was late.

I am a firm believer that you shouldn’t watch theatre sober.  It’s completely unnecessary.  I just don’t think anything can be gained by it.  I don’t believe in the Tennessee Williams trick of writing plays once you’re several sheets to the wind, but watching it sober?  No No No No No.  I haven’t acted drunk, but I did once act with a hash hangover that made me walk around the stage v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y and made me forget my lines.  Fortunately everybody was in Victorian costume so everyone walked slowly.  Had it been Starlight Express I would probably have rollerskated myself into the wall.  Plus, the play I was briefly in was in rural Suffolk in front of twelve people and a chicken, so there was no one there to notice.  As a theatregoer, however, the punishment should fit the crime; so the play should suit the drink:

 Shakespeare : Pewter mugs  filled with frothy beer from ye olde country fayre

Sheridan :  why on earth are you going to see Sheridan?  see something else.  No alcohol can help you, dear.

Ibsen / Chekhov / Northern European others:   Vodka, what else?  Drinking wine whilst watching Russian plays makes you maudlin.  Champagne is too flippant for these types of plays.  Fire yourself up with concise, sharp vodka with bitter lemon and develop desires to go to Moscow in the middle of Act II.

Shaw / Barrie:  Red wine or port.  Something soft, grounded and decadent to sip to counteract the harsh political soap-boxing you are forced to endure whilst sitting still in a theatre for three hours listening to dreams of utopia and proto-feminism.

Coward : Go 1930s with G&T.  After three of them, you will think you are actually in  a Coward play.  The great thing about gin is you will laugh hysterically at the funny bits, then you will go home and sob dramatically for no apparent reason.

Eugene O’Neill:  He deserves his own section.  His plays go on for weeks.  Babies have been born at the beginning of Act I only to emerge from the theatre at the end of Act III filling in their University applications.  A Long Days Journey Into Night is like a recurrent dream that never leaves you.  It will scar you for life.  It lasts five weeks.  To get through a performance of this a sweet and sticky rum (for comfort) and coke (to keep you awake).  Prizes are given for those who manage to get through O’Neill’s plays without snoozing.

Classic Musicals : NB Anything before 1970.  If it’s a Cole Porter thing with ladies on a ship wearing shorts and singing about trying to kiss a chap called Sandy – go native with American cocktails.  Sidecar, dry martini, Angels Wings, Brandy Cocktail.  Never attempt more than two.  You have been warned.

Modern Musicals: After 1970. Absence of tap-dancing. Musicals turn into series of medleys of pop groups, the popularity of which turns everyone into an Abba fundamentalist, or makes everyone go on Saturday night shows to audition to be Andrew Lloyd Webber starlet.  Pretend it’s your own hen night.  Smirnoff Ice and Baileys chasers.   Yes, it’s the dumbing down of culture.  Yes, it’s got nothing to do with theatre and everything to do with a large gig.  Yes, there are people in the audience wearing John Barrowman T-shirts.  You cannot fight this.  It’s massive.  There are thousands of women descending upon the West End nightly, pounding down Shaftesbury Avenue to relive the Jersey Boys of their youth.  Get into the swing of it all and sing along with the rest of ’em.  Feel deliciously sick the following day, having overdosed on Irish cream and good cheer.

But, last night, the play was so excellent that I didn’t notice I hadn’t had time to get a drink, having not wanted anything other than water after I had given myself a cardiac arrest by galloping up St James’s Street like a heffer.  And when the wine arrived, courtesy of lovely husband in the interval, it was in hugely generous portions and ensured I thoroughly enjoyed the second half, only I became deeply nostalgic and distracted on the subject of England and it’s Romantic heritage.  One of the side-effects of drinking wine on a stomach that has had nothing in it except half a crumpet since lunchtime is that you are suddenly struck by a desire to remember poetry.  Or at least remember that you have to learn some.  Either way, it was a splendid piece of theatre, enough to restore your faith in something, and to make us Londoners feel very lucky at the quality of what we have to accompany our drinking.


Recently I took three days off work to try to focus on my studies.  I spent most of those three days beetling around the Underground like a mole – Central to Northern, Circle to Hammersmith & City and back again.  Of course, it is all designed to confuse us because the Circle isn’t even a Circle any more.  I had to go to the Womens’ Library in Aldgate, a place where it is forever 1978 and – despite the noble feminist ethics of its foundation – has the most disappointing and cross male doorman in London. I had to hand over my driving licence to get in, and wasn’t allowed to have it back until I left the building. 

Like the British Library, they treat every visitor like a suspect and make you feel vaguely oikish, whilst you shuffle around in your bag to retrieve a pencil, the only writing tool you can take into the reading room.   In the reading room there were no gents, obviously, and a very helpful lady who showed me where the pencil shavings were to go.  Then I viewed The Englishwoman’s Report and Gazette from 1879 on a microfilm at the back of the room next to the broken printer, where there was no natural light, and realised what a unique place it was.

Lots of journalism from the late nineteenth century hasn’t been collated and archived.  Apart from the fact there was simply a vast amount of magazines and newspapers (more than now) – some of it was rendered significant and some was not.  Women’s domestic journals were generally consigned to the dustbin of journalistic history.  But anyone doing any kind of study on the history of advertising, clothing, consumerism, politics, household maintenance or medicine would find half the stuff I trawled through invaluable.   They seem to have drunk a vast amount of Ovaltine, suffered from biliousness (are these two linked?) and some up with novelty ideas to get stains out of babies’ clothes. The table decoration section featured seven different seasonal decorations throughout the year, most of which involved ferns.   Cocoa was big business, with an advert featuring a large cup of the stuff on the front cover of the magazine for two years.  There was also the usual smattering of advice about what to do if you are fat, want to look thinner ( get a maid to stand behind you and pull on your stays until either one of you feels faint) and how to dress well but inexpensively. 

I was exhausted after an hour of this, as I felt like I had been harangued by several agony aunts shouting at me regarding what to do if my jar of Bovril fell over etc.   I then got told off for wandering into the wrong section  – “Sorry.  That’s only for staff!”  and ended up reading a journal for young ladies full of fictional moral tales about young girls who move to London innocent and pure only to fall into the evil paths of someone called Cedric or Neville who instantly corrupts them, supposedly to chill the faint female hearts of rural Britain and urge them never to leave their villages, lest they become deviant laudanum addicts and prostitutes in the space of one morning.   

This Londoner proved her deviance by going home, putting her slippers on and spending the next two hours trying to cable-knit a sweater.  God, I’m hardcore.