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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

I’m near the end of Robert Harris’s early novel Enigmaabout the World War II code breaking operation at Bletchley Park. I’ve stayed with it, but it’s not one of his best. As a thriller, it’s too clunky; the romance is unbelievable; and he doesn’t give you enough geeky detail about the machines or the codes to make them half-comprehensible without doing some extra research. So if you want a historical thriller by Harris I’d recommend Fatherland or Archangel, both of which play with counter-factual history: what if Hitler had won the war, what if Stalin…I won’t say any more!

And this morning I read that they have just discovered a coded message in a Surrey fireplace that was probably on its way to Bletchley Park but never got delivered. It was filed in a small red capsule and attached to a carrier pigeon, sent from Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasions. The poor bird possibly got lost or disoriented and stuck in the chimney. You can read the full report by Hannah Furness.

Here is the code, which hasn’t yet been broken:

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC

RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX

PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH

NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ

WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH

LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ

KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6

Isn’t it amazing that pigeons were a key part of the war efforts, in this case because there was a radio blackout for the D-Day invasions.

The Royal Pigeon Racing Association believe the bird probably either got lost, disoriented in bad weather, or was simply exhausted after its trip across the Channel.

Due to Winston Churchill’s radio blackout, homing pigeons were taken on the D-Day invasion and released by Allied Forces to inform military Generals back on English soil how the operation was going.

Speaking earlier this month, Mr Martin said: “It’s a real mystery and I cannot wait for the secret message to be decoded. It really is unbelievable.”

It is thought that the bird was destined for the top-secret Bletchley Park, which was just 80 miles from Mr Martin’s home.

The message was sent to XO2 at 16:45. The destination X02 was believed to be Bomber Command, while the sender’s signature at the bottom of the message read Serjeant W Stot.

Experts said the spelling of Serjeant was significant, because the RAF used J, while the Army used G.

Pigeon enthusiasts – commonly known as “fanciers” – have called for Mr Martin’s mysterious military bird to be posthumously decorated with the Dickin Medal; the highest possible decoration for valour given to animals.

The dead pigeon was likely to be a member of the secret wing of the National Pigeon Service – which had a squadron of 250,000 birds during the Second World War.

They can reach speeds of 80mph, cover distances of more than 1,000 miles and are thought to use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate.

Secret messages, unbreakable codes, privacy, encryption – it’s all as relevant today as it was in 1944.

As a child I used to love stories about messages being put into bottles on desert islands, cast onto the oceans, and picked up hundreds of miles away. It’s incredible that you make this connection instantaneously now with billions of people through an internet site, a blog post or a Facebook update. A tweet, in effect, is just a message scrawled on a desert island only without the bottle.

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When I was in Cardiff two weeks ago I had a couple of hours to visit the National Museum. It was the first time I had seen a life-size version of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss. What really threw me was not the sculpture itself, but the textual explanation on the side. I had no idea before what the image actually depicted: two lovers in an adulterous embrace who will later be slain by the woman’s jilted husband.

It was a real hermeneutical challenge to me, showing how one’s lifelong perception of a situation or event can be partial or distorted or misleading.

I’d always taken this beautiful sculpture to be a symbol of intimacy, tenderness, passion and romantic love – which in many ways it still is. But when you know the story, it shows how something so pure, beautiful and even ‘innocent’ as romance can sometimes do such damage, when it causes someone to separate themselves from everything else that has been important to them – from all their other loves and commitments.

Passion and romance seem to justify themselves, in the heat of the moment, and to justify all the decisions that flow from them. Love, in our culture, often seems to have the final, decisive word; as if there is no possibility of having another perspective on it, or putting it in a larger context.

Don’t misunderstand me: love, passion, romance – these are good things; as long as they help us to deepen and make sense of the life we have, rather than destroying it. (And nor does the understandable passion of the betrayed husband justify him murdering the lovers…)

Here is the caption from the Tate website (referring to their marble version):

The Tate’s The Kiss is one of three full-scale versions made in Rodin’s lifetime. Its blend of eroticism and idealism makes it one of the great images of sexual love. However, Rodin considered it overly traditional, calling The Kiss ‘a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula.’ The couple are the adulterous lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, who were slain by Francesca’s outraged husband. They appear in Dante’s Inferno, which describes how their passion grew as they read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere together. The book can just be seen in Paolo’s hand.

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Go and see Ruby Sparks. I nearly walked out after fifteen minutes, because it seemed like the most saccharine and cliché-ridden romantic comedy. But then she appears – the writer’s dream becomes his reality – and you realise that under the guise of a good-natured rom-com there lies a dark and disturbing psycho-drama and a clever philosophical meditation on love, power, freedom and identity. It’s one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year.

Minor plot-spoilers follow, but not much more than is in the trailer. He is a writer; he starts writing about a woman who has appeared in his dreams, and he creates the perfect woman who will fill his lonely heart. Then she appears, for real, and after the slapstick scenes of him and his brother coming to terms with that, he has to get on with the business of really knowing and loving her.

And of course the person he has created stops fitting into his model. So he breaks his self-imposed rule, and starts re-writing who she is, even as he is in the middle of the relationship. It goes funny, and pear-shaped, and self-defeating, and then very, very dark, before the inevitable (and I thought quite beautiful) light-filled resolution.

Like any good fairy-tale or parable, it presents in an outlandish form something that is so normal we have stopped seeing it. In this case, that we are attracted to people (not just romantically) because they match what we find attractive, what we hope to find in another; and that – often – we subtly and not-so-subtly pressure and manipulate people to conform to our expectations of what the relationship should be about.

So there is a joy in discovering ‘the other’, but the other is objectified and can become a projection of our own hopes. Then we realise that they are more than the person we want them to be – they are the person they want to be, and a person we may never appreciate or even understand.

Is the first kind of attraction inherently narcissistic and manipulative? Is all love, at least at the beginning, a form of fantasy? How do we keep the delight in finding someone who fits with our dreams at the same time as giving them the space to surprise and unsettle and disturb? We objectify someone, but we can’t live with an object for very long.

And if, to take the questioning much further, the person begins to realise that they have in some sense been created by another, where does that leave them? How do we set them free, without losing everything? How do they set themselves free? This isn’t such a fantasy: think of the myriad ways in which we have all been ‘created’, formed, by others – by parents, teachers, friends, culture, society…

I’m being very heavy, because I came away with my head spinning. It’s not as heavy as I have made it out – in fact it feels like a bit of fluff. That’s what makes it so clever, it’s a breezy romcom that reads, afterwards, like a lecture in philosophy or psychology. It’s intriguing and great fun.

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Every few weeks there is another expose about the average cost of a wedding in Britain or the States, but reading Kirsten Hansen’s article was the first time I had come across this wonderful phrase: ‘The Wedding-Industrial Complex’.

We spend far more on a wedding than we would on any regular party. But that’s the point. Weddings aren’t a regular party; they are a booming business.

According to TheKnot.com, a popular wedding site, the average American wedding costs about $24,000. A wedding in larger urban centres could easily cost closer to $50,000. Who says you can’t put a price on love, dreams and happiness? According to the website CostofWedding.com, the price per guest alone for a wedding in New York could easily be about $200 – if a couple is inviting 150 guests, they’re already looking at $30,000.

Just what exactly happened? How did weddings go from celebrations of a new marriage to incredibly expensive extravaganzas that put couples or their families in debt? The wedding industrial complex is to blame. The term refers both to the way the wedding industry has worked to sell the “perfect” wedding (check out a bridal magazine, it’s all there in gorgeously retouched advertisements), and to the social expectations about what makes a wedding (tuxedo, diamond and white dress splendour). It is a big machine, all working to ensure that anyone getting married should expect to pay a whole lot of money for the privilege. Unless, of course, they’re willing to sacrifice their dreams and crush their love under the heel of practicality.

The wedding industry is out to make money, and someone’s special day is how they do it. It has been a brilliant marketing campaign, not least because most of us have bought into it. They’ve already sold us on their merchandise which is wrapped up as “romance”, “hopes” and that “one perfect day”. The price tag shouldn’t matter if a couple is really in love.

Of course, there are many couples out there who reject the idea that their wedding has to cost them as much as a downpayment on a house. DIY weddings are becoming more popular and couples are finding ways to put their own stamp on the big day for a lower price. They are finding free venues, having potlucks, hiring amateur photographers or choosing weekday weddings. A couple can forego many things like wedding favours and huge guest lists; there are definitely ways to cut costs.

There is, however, only so much a couple can do about their budget unless they’re willing to ditch the “perfect wedding” ideal entirely. A larger guest list, a rented venue, a caterer – every little bit adds up, and if they are unlucky, the place they live might be expensive by nature.

I take a middle line here. I think it’s important to celebrate, and especially to celebrate something as significant as a wedding; and celebrations, usually, cost money. But it’s also important to distinguish between what is really helping a couple to celebrate, and what is instead being imposed by some unacknowledged social pressure or some insidious marketing campaign.

Of course every couple has some social obligations that must be fulfilled at a wedding; one of the reasons for getting married is that it brings your ‘private’ relationship into the public gaze so that it can be acknowledged and supported publicly. But I still think there should be an inner freedom about the choices a couple makes, so that they can decide what they truly think is best for themselves and for their families and friends. Is it possible, however, to escape the clutches of the Wedding-Industrial Complex?

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Some people would prefer to replace the traditional wedding vows with words they have composed themselves, thinking that this would make their promises more personal and more authentic. I’m not so sure about this.

Amish wedding ring quilt

I did an email interview last week with David Gibson for the website ‘For Your Marriage‘. He was asking me about some of the ideas I sketched in my recent Royal Wedding post. You can read the interview here, and this is the full response I gave to his questions:

In my experience most young people hope to get married one day, despite the prevalence of marriage breakdown and a general suspicion of institutions.

It’s not just the romance of a wedding day. I think they recognise that love finds its deepest fulfilment in a lifelong commitment, in giving oneself to another person without conditions, without reservation. And they know that marriage is a way of making that commitment. It frightens them, because commitment is frightening, at the same time as it attracts them.

The words of the wedding vows are so simple and so profound: ‘To love and honour each other for the rest of your lives… For better for worse, for richer for poorer… Till death do us part’. Young people are not, on the whole, cynical, selfish or hedonistic. They want to fall in love; and when they do, they want that love to last. They know, deep down, that love requires commitment and sacrifice; and they are longing to give themselves to something of lasting value.

They also sense, perhaps without understanding why, that love demands a promise, a definitive Yes; and that this promise needs to be made in public. In other words, the institution of marriage still speaks to young people with great force.

Of course a couple can express their love for each other in many different ways; and they can commit themselves to each other in their own words. They should do this often! But I don’t think this can ever substitute for the traditional words of the wedding vows. This is partly because the words themselves are already so meaningful – it’s simply hard to better them. ‘I promise to love and honour you for the rest of my life… For better for worse, for richer for poorer…’ So to substitute your own words would somehow be a diminishment.

But I also think there is something important about entering into a tradition that is larger than yourself, and freely choosing to use a set of words that you haven’t yourself chosen, because then you allow yourself to be freed from the limitations of your own vision. This ‘humility’ allows your love to be purified, stretched, and transformed into something far deeper than you could have imagined.

To use the solemn words of the wedding ritual, rather than your own composition, is to say ‘there is more to love than we have yet understood, and we choose to let this larger love possess us’. It’s not impersonal to use the formal words of the wedding ritual; it’s a way of lifting what is deeply personal into something larger and even more beautiful.

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As you know by now, I try to avoid reading the plot summaries in film reviews. So it was a delight, as a novice blogger, to discover that Julie & Julia is about someone who starts a blog.

We jump back and forward between two lives. We see Julia Child discovering the wonders of French cooking in 1950s Paris, longing to publish her own account of these recipes in English for the American market – an account that was eventually published as the hugely influential Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And two generations later we see Julie Powell, who vows in August 2002 to create all 524 of Child’s recipes in one year, and blogs about her efforts. The blog is still online, and here is her first post.

Masterin' by chrisfreeland2002.

In the dramatic structure of the film – two parallel lives, mirroring each other, full of connections and echoes – we are meant to see Julie’s blogging as the contemporary equivalent of Julia’s writing. Communication and self-expression have now taken a digital form. But what’s so interesting is that the ‘contemporary’ blog is really a means to a much more traditional goal: a book deal. Julie’s dream (in the framework of a romantic comedy), is not to get her man – she is already married; it’s not even to be a successful blogger – the hits start coming in pretty quickly. It’s simply to be recognised by the journals and published as an author.

So the film, based on a true story, has its own take on that continuing discussion of whether the internet and the blogosphere have more significance in contemporary culture than the traditional mainstream media. It shows that however successful someone is in the virtual world, there is a continuing allure in the printed word – newspapers, magazines, books. You could even call it a romance – at least for those old enough to have grown up enchanted by books, like Julie. But this was five or six years ago already; and I wonder how differently the story would play out today.

[As a film, it was patchy. Funny and moving in parts, but much of it feeling like a well produced sit-com. If you want someone to persuade you to see it, there is a glowing review of the film here.]

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