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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

The best film of the year? Go and see The Place Beyond the Pines. I know, it’s not even May, and this may be a bit premature. But it’s certainly the best film of my last twelve months, and I’d put good money on it remaining in the top slot until 31 December.

I absolutely cannot tell you any plot, and please don’t read any reviews or watch any trailers, because there were some beautiful moments of revelation that would have been destroyed if I had known what was coming. All I’ll say is this: it’s perhaps the most profound study of fatherhood I’ve ever seen on film. And if there is a topic that needs real consideration in our culture today it is this.

This isn’t meant to be a reflective post, just an advert! If you want to see a serious, thought-provoking, beautiful and thrilling piece of film-making, go and see this before it disappears onto the small screen.

I managed to find a YouTube clip that is not a trailer. Take a look at this bravura extended-take opening scene. The film is much more than this; but what a way to start!

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What did we do before the iPad? (By ‘we’ I mean ‘you’, because I’m the dinosaur stuck with the lap-top). The answer: We played all day on the Etch A Sketch.

"Say Anything" on an Etch-A-Sketch by methodshop.com

Hours and hours of my young life wasted/gained/lost/liberated: on the sofa, in bed, in the back of the car.

It has everything the iPad has: text (writing ‘STEPHEN’ in large, uneven letters across the screen); images (all those pictures of stick-men, houses, battle-fields, random animals and geometric patterns); video (the pictures morphed and developed in the making); audio (the faint screech of the wires, the white noise of shaking the filings back into place, using the screen as an improvised drum). It even had wifi: the fact that if your little brother was just finishing his Etch A Sketch masterpiece on the other side of the living room you could use a carefully thrown basketball to edit or delete the image at will; no troublesome wires, no worry about incompatible sockets.

And perhaps all of my present obsessive-compulsive tendencies stem from my discovery that if you systematically rubbed out every millimetre of the screen by bringing the horizontal line back and forward and edging it down incrementally, you uncovered the inner reality of the mechanism: the wires, the pulleys, the metal filings piled up below. This took about half an hour, and I couldn’t stop until not a single filing remained on the underside of the screen. A first taste of mystery, of engineering, of taking things just a little bit too far…

Why this reverie? I just discovered that André Cassagnes, the Etch A Sketch inventor, died last month at the age of 86. This is from Margalit Fox:

A chance inspiration involving metal particles and the tip of a pencil led Mr. Cassagnes to develop Etch A Sketch in the late 1950s. First marketed in 1960, the toy — with its rectangular gray screen, red frame and two white knobs — quickly became one of the brightest stars in the constellation of midcentury childhood amusements that included Lincoln Logs and the Slinky.

Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester in 1998; in 2003, the Toy Industry Association named it one of the hundred best toys of the 20th century. To date, more than 100 million have been sold.

The toy received renewed attention in March, amid the 2012 presidential campaign, after Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, described his boss’s campaign strategy heading from the primaries into the general election thus:

“Everything changes,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

The quotation, pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike, was widely interpreted as an acknowledgment by the Romney campaign that its candidate had no fixed political ideology.

The complete eradicability of an Etch A Sketch drawing is born of the toy’s simple, abiding technology.

The underside of the screen is coated with a fine aluminum powder. The knobs control a stylus hidden beneath the screen; turning them draws the stylus through the powder, scraping it off in vertical or horizontal lines that appear on the screen as if by magic. (An early French name for the toy was L’Écran Magique, “Magic Screen.”)

To erase the image, the user shakes the toy, recoating the screen with aluminum; tiny plastic beads mixed with the powder keep it from clumping.

That is essentially all there is to an Etch A Sketch, and though the toy now comes in various sizes, shapes and colors, its inner workings have changed little since Mr. Cassagnes first touched a pencil to a powder-coated sheet on an otherwise ordinary day more than five decades ago.

And the discovery itself?

One day in the late ’50s, as was widely reported afterward, Mr. Cassagnes was installing a light-switch plate at the factory. He peeled the translucent protective decal off the new plate, and happened to make some marks on it in pencil. He noticed that the marks became visible on the reverse side of the decal.

In making its faux finishes, the Lincrusta factory also used metallic powders; Mr. Cassagnes’s pencil had raked visible lines through particles of powder, which clung naturally to the decal by means of an electrostatic charge.

Mr. Cassagnes spent the next few years perfecting his invention, which was introduced in 1959 at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. (Because the toy was patented by Arthur Granjean, an accountant working for one of Mr. Cassagnes’s early investors, Mr. Granjean is sometimes erroneously credited as the inventor of Etch A Sketch.)

After Ohio Art acquired the rights to the toy for $25,000, Mr. Cassagnes worked with the company’s chief engineer, Jerry Burger, to refine its design. Where Mr. Cassagnes’s original had been operated with a joystick, the final version mimicked the look of the reigning household god of the day — the television set. It soon became the company’s flagship product.

In later years, Mr. Cassagnes designed kites; by the 1980s, he was considered France’s foremost maker of competition kites, which can perform elaborate aerial stunts.

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Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton was on Desert Island Discs recently. You can listen here.

She was born with a degenerative condition and her parents were told she would not survive infancy. Now in her mid-fifties and a cross-bench peer, she’s spent her adult life campaigning for equality for disabled people and was one of the leading voices behind the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

There were some fascinating insights about living with a serious disability, and what it means for her as a person, and for society.

She was asked about the loss of privacy that comes through needing the help of a carer for everyday life. She said (I’m paraphrasing, and writing from memory) that privacy is not just about physical space, but much more about preserving your interior privacy – keeping that inner space you need for yourself, one that can never be taken from you, whatever is happening on the outside.

And then this got her speaking more generally about the experience of having a number of people over many years help her and care for her. It gives you an insight, she said, into what people are really like, much more than if you were on ‘equal’ terms with them in your physical abilities. You are ‘being cared for’, and someone is coming into your private space, but being in a position of ‘carer’ exposes not just you to them but also them to you in a way that wouldn’t normally happen in everyday society. You see the reality of the person they are through the way they treat you.

I’m reading into her comments a little more than she actually said, but I think it is justified. She was saying, in effect, that your lack of autonomy, which might seem to isolate you and put you at a distance from the autonomous development of relationships that usually takes place, in fact allows a degree of communion between persons, of vulnerability, insight and even intimacy, that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. You see more and share more because of the relationship of need and dependence. Autonomy isn’t the only way in which people can freely share their lives with each other and be brought into a profound relationship. Autonomy, in other words, doesn’t define you as a person.

Pope John Paul II touched on these questions in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[There is a] mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. But how can we reconcile this approach with the exaltation of man as a being who is “not to be used”? The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others.

We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection [...].

At another level, the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. [Para 19]

And in the following paragraph [20] he continues:

This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.

Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual.

In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

I’m not saying that Baroness Campbell would agree with all this – I’m just following my own train of thought from Desert Island Discs to Pope John Paul II.

Another lovely story that came across later in the programme was this: She said that as a child with a severe disability, nevertheless her parents loved her with an unconditional love, and never tired of telling her that she was beautiful; and this knowledge of their love and of her beauty has sustained her throughout her life and given her the courage and confidence to overcome the huge difficulties she has faced. I like the two sides of this, equally important but sometimes separated from each other: being loved by another – a subjective reality; and being beautiful – an objective or a transcendent reality. Your dignity, your worth, your goodness, your beauty: in the eyes of another (because they happen to be there), and in the eyes of God (because he made you to be who you are). For the common good, and for the rights of each individual, society needs both the subjective and the objective affirmations of human worth.

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I grew up in Harpenden, a small town off the M1 about half an hour north of London, with St Albans just a few miles to the south, and Luton to the north. I was back there at the weekend and took a walk along the River Lea, where I used to play as a kid. It was a place for swimming, fighting, fishing, general splashing around, and finding hidden treasure. Now and then it was a place of danger and nasty accidents – usually caused by the broken bottles on the river bed, or some unseen stretch of barbed wire.

The River Lea in Harpenden

Harpenden is only a few miles from the source in Leagrave, on the edge of Luton, so the river is only about 12 feet wide – not much more than a stream. But the walk got me thinking about its huge historical significance. I was oblivious to this as a child.

In the late ninth century the River Lea formed one part of the boundary between the Danelaw, the eastern area occupied by the Vikings, and Saxon England to the west. West of the Lea was the territory that King Alfred managed to hold, and to the east the Vikings had the run of the place. This was all codified in a treaty between Alfred and Gurthrum. So Harpenden (or the few hamlets in the area in the late ninth century) was right at the ‘national’ boundary between England and Scandinavia, between Saxon and Viking.

The Lea, with its course much altered over the centuries, runs through the Olympic Park at Stratford, and into the Thames near the Millennium Dome. You could never guess at its historical significance today, but there are a few remaining boundaries that betray its larger meaning. Part of the border between Essex and Hertfordshire, for example, follows the river’s course. And it’s interesting that when they were cutting off the Diocese of Brentwood from Westminster, the dividing line through east London is marked by the River Lea. So the ecclesiastical boundaries of the twentieth century reflect over a thousand years of territorial dispute, compromise, and eventual agreement.

Just for the record, I was born on the right side of the River Lea (Alfred’s/Westminster’s) at Tottenham Court Road, and lived on the Saxon side of the small valley that cuts through the eastern edge of Harpenden!

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It’s an old trick, and a common childhood game – to cut out an adult head from a magazine photograph and paste it onto the body of a baby. Evian use it on their latest bus-stop advertising campaign.

The first visual message, very boring, is that if you drink a litre of Evian water you will be as stunningly beautiful and alarmingly thin as this model. The second message, slightly tongue-in-cheek, together with the Live Young caption in the corner and the baby’s body T-shirt, is that you will retain the youthfulness, innocence, playfulness and perfect skin that you had when you were a little baby.

The subliminal pro-life message, paid for by Evian, is philosophical: whatever you think about the ‘personhood’ of a baby, this baby is you; you are the same human being; it’s one continuous life; looking backwards – once you were a baby and now you have become an adult; looking forwards – this is the baby who will become (if it survives) an adult.

When I look at a photo of myself at 15 years old, or 5 years, or 5 months, or when I look at an ultrasound scan image of myself at 36 weeks, or 24, or 12 – I say ‘this is me’. It’s a hugely different me, but it’s still me. I ‘identify’ (at a personal level) with this image, with this human being, because there is an ‘identity’ (at a biological and philosophical level) between me today and me back then; just as I identify with the me who existed 2 minutes ago. Identity doesn’t undermine difference – of course there are differences. It just allows you to affirm, at a deeper level, a continuity of existence, and gives you a sound reason for saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘we are the same person’.

The poster reminds you of the continuity between the adult ‘you’ and the infant ‘you’. It doesn’t take much to then make the link between the infant ‘you’ and the ‘you’ in the womb. And that reminds you of the importance of remembering that the human being in the womb is another ‘you’ and not just an ‘it’.

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I’ve just seen Audrey Tautou’s latest film Delicacy (6/10). The highlight of the trip, however, was to discover that after an experimental period of about three months, Cineworld have finally put the not-so-cheap-but-nevertheless-cheerful pick’n’nix sweet selection back in the foyer.

They made two fundamental mistakes: they went posh, and they went healthy. Instead of the cola bottles, jelly babies, strawberry bonbons, fake-chocolate-covered raisins, pink shrimps, non-Cornish-non-dairy fudge (perhaps this post is getting a bit too confessional for a blog), they created a beautifully displayed posh nuts and healthy dried fruit pick’n’mix counter.

Can you believe it? What a complete misreading of the psychology of cinema, which is about comfort food, returning to the childhood wonder of our first cinematic experiences, eating what is bad for you not just because you like it but because of the added frisson of guilt associated with the transgression itself, the surging highs of an industrially produced sugar hit and the corresponding lows just seven minutes later, the knowledge that you are paying so vastly over the odds per gram of plastic liquorice that you just have to savour it for all it’s worth, and the sheer gastronomic delight of chomping through the panoply of artificial flavours and colours, or of making a single piece of ‘fudge-that-isn’t-really-fudge’ last through the whole of the first act of Citizen Kane.

As if we were going to pay £1.78 for 100 grams of hand-hatched pecan nuts and beach-dried mango strips.

Anyway, the people have spoken, Cineworld has listened, the fruit and nuts have gone, and the technicolour junk is back. The guy at the till told me that no-one was buying them. End of story.

It was worth it as an experiment though. Why? Because it means they finally had to clear out the five-year old sweets that had been sitting at the bottom of the buckets and rising to the top now and then, ready to break your teeth. It’s a sad moment when you relax back into your cinema seat and the purple jelly baby is as hard as a gobstopper and the foam shrimp snaps in your mouth like melba toast. Never again! Well, that’s a bit too hopeful. What I mean is, we’ve got a few months now before the new stock starts to deteriorate again.

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You may not have seen the recent Unicef report about the way materialism has come to dominate family life in Britain. What children really want, says the report, is to spend time with family and friends, to take part in group activities such as sporting events, and simply to be outside. What they are getting instead, very often, is more stuff. Parents are working such long hours in Britain, compared with other countries, and when they do get home they are too tired to spend time with their children. So they buy toys and gadgets to compensate. That’s the gist.

Nintendo DS Lite

John Bingham summaries some of the conclusions of the report:

In its latest study Unicef commissioned researchers from Ipsos Mori interviewed hundreds of children in Britain, Sweden and Spain, asking them about their ideas of happiness and success.

Researchers found that consumerism was less deeply embedded in Sweden and Spain, which rank significantly higher for the wellbeing of children.

British parents work longer hours and are simply “too tired” to play with their children whom in turn they can no longer control.

Families across the country, irrespective of social class or race, are less likely to spend time, eat or play games together, with children often left to their own devices.

In British households television is increasingly used as a “babysitter”, while children’s bedrooms have become “media bedsits” with computers, games consoles and widescreen TVs taking the place of dolls houses or model aeroplanes.

The report found that children from poorer families were also less likely to take part in outdoor activities than those in the other countries, opting for a “sedentary” lifestyle in front of the television or computer games. The trend was more marked in teenagers.

Among the more startling examples of obsessive consumerism uncovered by the report was a mother fretting over whether to buy a Nintendo DS games system for her three-year-old son convinced that he would be bullied if she did not get him one.

In Sweden family time was embedded into the “natural rhythm” of daily life with parents sharing mealtimes, fishing trips, sporting events or evenings in with their children.

While in Spain fathers tended to work long hours, children enjoyed more attention from their mothers and wider family circle.

But in Britain, some parents spoke of having “given up” on taking their children to organised activities.

The report, authored by Dr Agnes Nairn, an academic and marketing expert, said: “Parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist.”

She concluded that there was an “enormous difference” between Britain and other countries.

She said: “While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, [their] parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children. This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden.”

Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, adds:

We are teaching our children, practically from the moment they are born, that the one thing that matters is getting more stuff.

We are probably the most secular society in the world, we do not have the counterbalance of religion but at the same time we are a very driven society very into progress and making money.

How does one react to all this? Is it just about making parents feel guilty for things that are beyond their control? Is family life really imploding in the way described in this report? Are there simple (guilt-free) changes a family can make to improve the quality of relationships and give children what they really want and need from their parents? Any practical suggestions?

[You can read the full report here]

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Is boarding school bad for you? Stefanie Marsh, in a trenchant and fairly one-sided article, looks at the work of psychotherapist Joy Schaverien. In her paper ‘Boarding School: The Trauma of the Privileged Child’, Schaverien claims to identify something called Boarding School Syndrome, an emotional dysfunction stemming primarily from the trauma of early separation from one’s parents, that manifests itself in intimacy problems in later life.

Eton College

In Schaverien’s words:

Parents bankrupt themselves to send their children to school when they are just babies really. This is a terrible burden for the child. But it is like sending a child into care. Nowadays there are duvets on the beds and they are allowed teddy bears but it doesn’t make up for the fact that children leave their mothers, their primary attachment figures, when they are essentially still babies.

Stefanie Marsh fills in some of the psychological details:

‘Attachment theory’, a core tenet of contemporary psychology, was formulated by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who, in the Second World War, observed the effects on children who had lost parents or been evacuated. During the 1980s, his theories were extrapolated and applied to adults – separation anxiety and grief in childhood, it is now commonly held, can create different ‘attachment styles’ in adult romantic relationship: secure-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Boarding school ‘survivors’, as they have been collectively termed by the psychotherapist Nick Duffell, are said to most frequently exhibit avoidant styles, viewing themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. Often they suppress their feelings, cope with rejection by distancing themselves from partners or feel uncomfortable with emotional or physical closeness.

So this isn’t about identifying particular problems that can develop in the culture of a boarding school, it’s about the very fact of being separated from one’s parents at an ‘early’ age. I think the focus is more on those who board at ‘prep’ school, i.e. those who leave home not at 13, but sometime between the ages of 7 and 13. (David Cameron went to board at prep school at age 7; Stephen Fry at 7; Boris Johnson at 9; Price William at 8; Sienna Miller at 8…)

What do you think? What’s your own experience? Is there another side to this story?

[Times, Modern section, 23 June, pp. 4-5; subscription only]

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My other highlight from the Royal Wedding was the trees that were brought into the nave of Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t just that they beautified the interior of the Abbey, like an oversized bunch of carefully arranged flowers; it was the magical sense they created that by entering into this building you were actually going out into another completely different world.

I’ve always loved this kind of illusion. It demonstrates how going inside can sometimes take you outside; how fixing your glance on something small can sometimes make your vision much broader. It’s like a metaphor for the power of the imagination itself, which uses something ordinary to transport you somewhere extraordinary. The very act of reading, for example – so still, so stationary, so solitary – is to float up into another world, or fall down into a rabbit-hole of adventure.

The trees in Westminster Abbey made me think of one of my favourite childhood books, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, where the inner walls of Max’s bedroom are transformed into the treescape of a terrifying jungle. And the wallpaper in David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth that turned his sitting room into an autumnal forest. And Lucy clambering through the wardrobe as the coats turned into leaves and branches and the darkness opened out into the forest snow of Narnia. And Dr Who stepping into the Tardis.

My favourite example of this kind of imaginative inversion is St Francis of Assisi’s Portiuncula. This is the little medieval chapel that once sat in the forest in the plain below Assisi. But they cut down the trees and built an enormous basilica over the entire chapel. So now you leave the streets, walk into the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and instead of being ‘inside’ you are transported ‘outside’ to the forest glade surrounding the chapel. Every time I have been there I have been struck with child-like wonder.

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It’s good to know that David Cameron has been reading my blog. Or at least that he has come to appreciate the cultural significance of the British pier since I last blogged about this in March. When he chose to give his vision of a Big Society another push earlier this week, he sent Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, down to Hastings to see how the locals are trying to save their pier.

Hastings pier

You can see ten minutes of Newsnight documentary about Hurd’s seaside visit here; and there are some nice reflections from Max Davidson here on the strange pull of the pier on the British imagination, occasioned by the opening of Weston-super-Mare’s new £51m Grand Pier.

For they were, in their heyday, romantic places. The ingenuity of Victorian engineers, building out into the sea, when it would have been far simpler and cheaper to build the same structures on shore, stirred the imagination. There was a kind of poetry in the conjunction of the lapping waves and those jaunty pavilions, shimmering in the sun. They were places of adventure, glamour, innocent merriment. No Mediterranean beach could match the splendour of an English pier in its pomp.

When I was a child in the 1960s, an outing to Margate Pier was an event of knee-trembling excitement. I laughed myself silly at the Punch and Judy shows. I guzzled huge sticks of rock. I thought the ghost train was the single scariest thing that had ever happened to me. It didn’t matter that paint was peeling off the skeletons, that the spiders were made of shoe-laces or that the driver of the train looked like Albert Steptoe. I let my imagination roam.

Most of all, I loved those old coin-slide machines where if you rolled a penny at the right moment, you could get ten, 15, 20 pennies back, as a gleaming pile of coins toppled over the precipice. It was my first introduction to the thrills and spills of gambling.

Like pantomimes, with which they have much in common, piers bewilder foreigners. “This is your idea of fun?” asks the bemused German or Frenchman, as giggling English families pile on to 5mph trains, puttering along to the end of the pier past speak-your-weight machines and candyfloss stalls. But they retain a nagging hold on our imagination, for that very reason. They are not sophisticated. They are the reverse of sophisticated. But they connect us to childhoods past, when the world was simpler.

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Toy Story 3 is an astonishing film – one of the most profound, beautiful and funny I have seen in years.

Please don’t think that it is just for kids. Sure, if you have children, or know any, take them along. But if you don’t, then just go and see it for yourself. Don’t worry – there will be other adults in the cinema without children accompanying them. You won’t look strange.

I’m not usually so directive in these posts, but here we go: You should see this film!

There are some minor themes and sub-plots: love, loss, friendship, bereavement, justice, forgiveness, family, childhood trauma, freedom, redemption, etc. (Only in a trilogy as sophisticated as this one could these be flagged up as ‘minor themes’.)

The deepest existential theme is one that has run through the whole trilogy: that of personal identity. I’m not giving any real plot away if I tell you the premise of the film, that Andy has grown up and is going away to college, having boxed up his toys for the attic. So the toys are caught between their desire to remain loyal to Andy, and their longing to find someone who would appreciate them for what they are: toys. It’s that irresolvable tension between past and future, between duty and desire, between living for the other and living for the self. And the whole film turns on the question of whether it is possible to do both.

It struck me that the situation of the toys represents, above all, the situation of parents when their children leave home. Parents, like the toys, are left in the empty nest. Their whole life has been defined in terms of their relationship with their children, who seem not to need them any more. They want to remain loyal parents, open to giving and receiving love. But they also need to discover some new sense of purpose, or at least a deeper and more expansive way of living that vocation to be a parent – one that is not defined by the immediate needs of their children.

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Children’s stories can be set in the real world or in a fantasy world. But the best stories, for me, always involved the discovery of an alternative world just at the edge of everyday reality. It was the discovery itself that provided the greatest excitement, and my curiosity and wonder were stirred up above all by point of intersection between the two worlds – the threshold itself.

Classic examples of this are the rabbit hole that takes Alice into her wonderland; the tornado that sweeps Dorothy away to meet the Wizard of Oz; and the wardrobe that leads to Narnia. It’s for the same reason that I continue to love time-travel films.

San Francisco - Mission District: Balmy Alley - The Missing Page from Where the Wild Things Are by wallyg.

One of my favourite books as a child was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. When the new film version was in production I was disappointed to hear that the director Spike Jonze had chosen to alter the crucial ‘threshold’ moment, the moment of transition.

In the book, little Max storms off to his room in a huff, and the bedroom itself gradually dissolves into the Land of the Wild Things. The walls, the ceiling, the bedposts - they slowly transform themselves into the enchanted forest. So the distance between his ordinary reality and this alternative world is felt to be paper-thin.

In the film, Max escapes down the street, through a broken fence (which becomes the symbolic threshold), to a boat waiting on the shore. The new land feels like it is out there rather than just beside or within the strange world we call the real one.

But it’s a beautiful film. More like a poem or a meditation on childhood than a movie. It captures something about the mood of childhood and the hugeness of the questions we face there. It transports you, with Max, back into those primal experiences of the world that never really disappear.

Where the Wild Things Are by Skinned Mink.

I don’t often link to film reviews, because so many of them are disposable – and they give away too much plot. This Empire review, by Dan Jolin, is a thought-provoking meditation in its own right.

I suppose that midnight on New Year’s Eve – and in this case the eve of a new decade – is one of those imaginative thresholds that even we adults can continue to appreciate. And it’s one of the clearest forms of time-travel.

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A simple story quoted in a book I’m reading: Fr Victor Galeone was working as a priest in Baltimore, and this is how he described one pastoral encounter in his journal:

Yesterday, after an emergency call at the nursing home, I was about to exit when I noticed a man in the hallway. He was sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, tenderly holding her hands. Not a word was spoken. He just sat there, looking intently into her eyes. I walked over and engaged him in conversation:

“Your wife, I take it?”

“That’s right, of forty-seven years.”

“Do you visit her often?”

“Every single day. Haven’t missed a day in four years, except for that blizzard last year.”

“She’s not saying anything.”

“That’s right. Hasn’t been able to for the last eighteen months – ever since her stroke. She has Alzheimer’s too.”

“Alzheimer’s! Does she know who you are?”

“Not really. But that doesn’t matter. I now who she is.”

[From Stephen Rossetti's Born of the Eucharist: A Spirituality for Priests pp. 101-102]

It made me think about all the different relationships we have where the knowledge is not always equal – and how that doesn’t always matter. Sometimes we know someone better than they know us; sometimes someone knows us better than we know them; sometimes someone knows us better than we know ourselves.

Husbands and wives talk about how there are hidden depths (or shallows!) to their spouse that they realise will always remain a mystery. Parents know things about their children that the children won’t discover for years. A child, even a baby at the breast, knows something about his or her parents – as parents - that no-one else will ever know. In friendship, the relationship often shuffles along, a moment of discovery on one side, and then on the other, building into something that is definitely mutual, but not necessarily equal or stabilised.

2008-06-07 Bus 50 (Open-Top Bus, Swanage to Bournemouth) 09 Swanage, Elderly Couple on Hill Overlooking the Beach by that_james.

And in this beautiful example of an elderly couple, one lost in dementia, the “being-known” becomes more than the knowing itself; the lost memory of once-having-loved is absorbed into an ever present reality of being-loved. This can be true of those at the end of life, of the unborn, of the estranged, and of all those who cannot or will not let the love they receive from others grow into a personal response.

Love – and indeed being human, being a person – is not just about your capacity to love or think or act, it is also about the fact that you are loved, by someone, somewhere. And even where that someone seems almost completely absent, it is the fact that you could be loved – that you are loveable. Our dignity is not conferred by others; but we need others to make explicit what is too often hidden and unacknowledged.

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There is still a mystique about film sets. The idea of being involved in some great project, in the magic of cinema; of seeing the director at work, or of meeting the stars. For most of us, it will never happen. For some, the only way in is to become an extra.

ARD Film set by nicholas macgowan.

Richard Johnson writes here about the reality of life as a ‘supporting artist’. It’s everything you’d expect: lots of waiting around; endless worrying about whether you have the right look; the free lunch; the modest fee; if you are lucky, a smile from one of the cast.

I’ve never been an extra on a film set, but I have been an unwanted intruder on a photo shoot. When my brother and I were little, on family holidays, we would play a game of trying to sneak into other people’s photographs. When we spotted someone about to take a photo, we’d do whatever it took to get in the frame – there was more time in those days, when people struggled with the focus and the light meters.

We had two strategies: You could take a long, sideways run into the far background, and stand there innocently, unobtrusively, as part of the distant scenery. Or you could walk boldly just a few feet behind those being shot, at just the right moment. It you timed it right, you made a big splash; but there was always the risk of moving too soon. 

It was a bit of holiday fun. And perhaps something more. A childlike longing, not for fame, but perhaps for immortality. I used to imagine this photo sitting in a frame on a French coffee table, or a German mantelpiece, years later; our cheeky grins jumping out from the background; our new friends wondering who these strangers were, and what they were doing.

mantelpiece by carbide.

Are these normal thoughts? Maybe not. But I do think there are some simple and almost universal longings at work here in our childish pranks and in the pull of the film set: To be part of something bigger; to have a place in the lives of others; to be remembered; to leave a mark. It’s easy to scoff at the contemporary obsession with fame, and the almost compulsive need there is to connect in all sorts of superficial ways. But maybe we should try to understand more what is at the root of these human needs – the desire to belong.

It makes you appreciate what a revolution the first Christian communities were in those highly stratified ancient societies. Places where anyone, absolutely anyone, could belong. Where no-one was excluded because of race or sex or social status or economic power. Where a new and deeper kind of belonging was possible, because of what Christ had done for everyone, and because of the hope he offered to all.

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