I Moved to Substack (Yes, I Know)

I’d like to interrupt your perfectly normal day to announce… my resignation from The Intercept!

(Not really).

I’ve decided to switch from WordPress to Substack. My current canon of posts has been exported (after some technical trouble), I’ve set up a profile picture (actually just a Modesty Blaise screencap from my downloads folder) and I have an introduction ready to go.

For those not in the know, Substack is newsletter software (so subscribers will receive my new writing directly in their inbox) which also functions as a very simple and minimal way to read previous newsletters (I liked the apparent lack of algorithmic recommendations and intrusive ads). My switch owes itself to the following:

  • Economic reasons: I would like to eventually make some extra income from this sort of writing, but my options are incredibly limited on WordPress. My pageviews aren’t bad on certain posts, but I’m unable to benefit from this without paying for the next plan up (out of my current budget; would be operating at a loss) in order to install Adsense (not fair on my readers anyway). I’ll eventually introduce a paid plan on Substack, where interested subscribers can read extra posts for a monthly £3-£5; regular newsletters will still remain free to the rest.
  • Semi-moral reasons: I would like to be a niche vintage/ancient culture writer – but I also think that culture writers, with their bait-y alarmist headlines, are ruining the way we live! Substack isn’t a clickfarm and appears at present to be the only way to transition into a paid internet-writing career without exploiting rage or panic. The newsletter model is attractive to me – it appears genuinely democratic, with the masses taking control of their reading material for good, and reminds me of the golden age of fashion blogging in the early 2010s. I love newsletters! (this counts as a moral).
  • Social reasons: WordPress is sort of dead. I don’t think many people find it easy to interface with this blog and it often feels as if I am shouting into a void. I dislike microblogging sites like Twitter and Tumblr for reasons I’ve stated previously, but it would still be nice to belong to a circle of writers who read each others’ work – at length, without algorithms and without having our attention spans hijacked.

The link to my Substack is here: https://fairypage.substack.com/

This blog will stay up with the posts it has now, but you can also read them on Substack from today. I may eventually let my WordPress domain expire.

Thank you so much for reading/putting up with my second change of platform. I would really appreciate any signups to the new newsletter – and, again, if you enjoyed any posts in particular, please feel free to share with your friends or on social media. (My main Substack promotion plan involves printing out ominous flyers and thumb-tacking them around my tiny village as a publicity stunt, so if we live within a mile of each other, I suppose you’ll know soon?)

I aim to post twice a week on Substack (one miscellaneous piece of writing on Friday at 5pm GMT, and one roundup of my current interests/activities on Sunday at 8pm GMT) but I’ll let you know if this changes.

💖

Marginalising Folx of Monetary Difference: Lexical Wokeness as a Class Shibboleth

Some observations of the past few months:

1. Harrow School (a £42,600+ p/a all-boys public school in the UK, and an essential part of the (as many would argue, actually oppressive) British ruling-class infrastructure)* is currently offering extracurricular classes in gender and sexuality studies to its Lower Sixth students (aged 16 or 17). The ‘cultural politics’ they pick up in these seminars are promised to be ‘useful…for any degree in the humanities’. To what degree can an ideology actually help the disempowered if the language and concepts associated with it are easily taken and disseminated within engines of privilege to help those most privileged maintain cultural fluency, and thus their own grip of power? What does this prove about Anglosphere humanities academia, a system outwardly obsessed with difference and giving voices to the voiceless?

Our most powerful politicians make predestined journeys from rich families to expensive public schools (especially Eton and – hmm, funny, that – Harrow) to exclusive Oxbridge members’ clubs to the Houses of Parliament. Now future generations can make that same journey, aided not only by family connections and interview coaching, but also by specialist training to help them assimilate, suspicion-free, into the New Academia of difference studies. Mark my words: in twenty years’ time, our rulers will have benefitted from all the same connections and monetary privileges as their predecessors, but it’ll be fine because they will know how to say things like ‘Black bodies’ and ‘queer epistemology’, proving, again, their suitability (a Foucauldian Mandate of Heaven) to rule over the uninitiated plebeians.

2. Brandeis University in the US costs upwards of $70k per year, and its admissions team take legacy status (eg. whether family members attended) into account when processing applications, essentially helping to preserve generational wealth and status. It’s fine though – its new attempt at listing Oppressive Language clearly turns it into a force for societal good (and definitely not just a sieve for sorting the uneducated poors from the virtuous upper-middle class).

I’m sure other rage-bait enthusiasts will be familiar with some of their more egregious Oppressive Language guidelines (‘picnic’ is racist now, and ‘trigger warning’ suddenly carries harmful connotations of violence – who knew?), but this section proved most chilling to me:

I beg you to give this a good long think. The people most affected by the circumstances listed on the left are clearly also most likely to be economically disenfranchised, subsequently less likely to hold the cultural or social capital to do well in the education system and thus also very unlikely to be initiated into these upper-echelon linguistic rituals. As a result, those with the greatest proximity to and at the greatest risk from addiction, prostitution, the prison system, modern slavery and domestic abuse are bound to become robbed of the ability to describe these experiences and the processes that govern them while being taken seriously by those in positions of power, who will have been educated at institutions like Brandeis and trained to see the above substitutions as correct by default.

Person-first language (sidenote) makes little sense as a mark of respect in a wider global context – English tends anyway to list larger or more important things last, and this isn’t even a universal default, as you’ll see if you compare the method of giving place names in our language (‘Hyde Park, London, England’) with the method used in Mandarin and other languages of the Sinosphere (‘England, London, Hyde Park’). There is thus little meaningful difference between, for example, ‘person of colour’ (or POC) and ‘coloured person’, beyond the implications they hold about their speakers; the former is pleasingly woke and signals familiarity with a certain set of online politics presumed progressive, the latter isn’t and does not.

This has carried over to my own university experience: those involved in the ultra-left Students’ Union use lexical wokeness as in-group signalling, making sure to campaign for ‘womxn’ and ‘QTPOC’ in such a way as to exclude the linguistically uninitiated from being read as legitimate student politicians. One of my strangest encounters on campus involved nonchalantly asking the ‘Womxn’s Officer’ why the ‘x’ was there and being amazed as I found out that, even though she had personally advocated for this annoying and alienating language-game, she genuinely had no idea. ‘Womxn’ served only as a discreet way of saying that those dissatisfied or unfamiliar with alt-left conceptions of gender identity would not be welcome at female-focused SU events or on campus.

Lexical wokeness is the new public-school slang – it’s a marker of privilege (bundled with the type of education given to the upper-middle class, or acquired by the leisure classes as they tap through their Instagram infographics on breaks from their pleasant jobs) and a shibboleth (those failing to use it correctly are treated as illegitimate, bigoted, not true members of the in-group). Leftist organisations who presume to control the ways their members use language cannot truly be leftist organisations, advocating for working-class people; they are woke versions of Henry Higgins at best and actively oppressive at worst. This focus on language only serves to prevent the arguably least privileged in society – the degree-less, the homeless, the elderly, those without Internet or library access – from being taken seriously and assumed innocent when arguing in their own interest.

*Read Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik for more on UK public schools – I wholeheartedly believe that this system needs to be dismantled before any true economic mobility is achievable in my country, not just softened (as is happening now) with rainbow flags, Butlerian gender studies and ethnically diverse web design.

Fantasy Antiques Shopping: Dead Edwardian Lady Summer Edition

Do you enjoy the creeping, musty dread of stately homes? Do you like reading postal catalogues, gift guides and ridiculously expensive retail editorials? Do you often find yourself living vicariously through the worldly possessions of the deceased? Here is a feature for you!

In my quarantine downtime, deprived of my usual hobby of getting lost in museums in off-peak hours (thanks for the memories and terrifying atmosphere, Furniture and Woodwork wing of the V&A!) I instead mastered the art of scrolling through auction websites. I now consider myself a village expert on creepy porcelain dolls, Czech perfume bottles, Hitler death relics and silent film costumes.

I’ve decided to branch out into a new field of lifestyle journalism (retrospective retail?) in order to share some of my favourite finds for the perfect anachronistic Victorian-Edwardian Picnic at Hanging Rock dead lady summer experience! You don’t need to worry about impulse-buying because these items have all been purchased already, by lucky and strange people.

Why not start your morbid Katherine Mansfield-esque garden party off in style in this 1880s gown owned and worn by Empress Elisabeth of Austria? Yes, that Elisabeth of Austria, the Romy Schneider one – many of her possessions went up for auction earlier this month courtesy of Hermann Historica. This dress is super cottagecore (in this season, I hear) and features a whalebone bodice, brocade trimmings, and a waistline ‘somewhat taken out’ – lifestyle secrets of the rich and famous! Pair with her contemporary parasol, which supposedly comes in the colours of the Bavarian flag but still needs cleaning before you can be sure, probably.

This would also be the ideal outfit for a day solving ancient mysteries and looking anguished amongst Greek or Roman ruins – in which case you may also want to pack…

A wicker basket of travel-sized bathroom supplies, also owned by Elisabeth of Austria! This is a steal – for only about £8000, you could be the lucky owner of ‘a porcelain bedpan, a porcelain insert for a portable toilet, four packets of “Papier-Closenettes” (paper toilet seat covers) … various porcelain pots, toothbrushes, brushes and combs, a pair of tweezers, a travel shoehorn/buttonhook, hairpins, hand towel and face flannel, a thermometer, clothes pegs, a small case, a travel clothes hanger, several scented sachets, a small bottle marked “Anker-Pain-Expeller” from Rotterdam and a “Superior English Eau de Cologne” from London, plus a small box of pebbles. Also two carpet beaters’.

As the owner of a Victorian hotel, I personally really hate it when my guests run off with small boxes of pebbles, leaving no pebbles for the next visitor. I’m glad she came prepared instead. And now you can too!

But wait, I hear you say, how could you leave out the most important component of the Victorian-Edwardian dead lady – her Orientalist musk? Perfume Bottles Auction delivers with this unidentified 1883 fragrance – made in England but lacquered as if Japanese, and encased in its own silken asphyxiation tomb.

And how to preserve your time mystery-hunting in the Mediterranean for generations future? Try this leather-bound album made for storing the newfangled and probably quite overrated ‘photograph’. It’s already graced by many of the US presidents you’ll remember from your lifetime, as well as contemporary eccentric Emperor Norton!

Who… Am I???

Hello all! This post is my attempt at making the most of a huge opportunity, because I have been interviewed for a piece for a big fashion-y publication (one that had really cool covers in the olden times) which will be published on Friday, and I’m hoping it will lead at least a few people to this blog – but I’m not sure it’s totally clear who runs this blog at all yet. Many of you will already know me from glory years on the dark side of Tumblr (2016-2019), and some will know me from my art Instagram (2014-2020), and some still will know me as an elusive former Aesthetics Wiki admin. I’ve been around, and have essentially led double/triple internet lives for the past few years, so I thought it would be nice to write a proper unified introduction. Who am I actually? What do I want? Why am I in your house?

My particulars + interests

  • Ella (2001 – ?) British university student (taking a year off to write a book…)
  • After a three-year turn as a radical feminist*, I’m invested in reading/writing about the social value and meaning of sexuality, and its overlap with culture and art.
  • I am interested in film history: Josef von Sternberg, Joseph Losey, Czech New Wave, Weimar Germany, giallo, everything that happened in the 60s generally, late Fellini, lesbian boarding school dramas, vampires, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, etc.
  • I am also interested in languages, premodern poetry and translation: I am proficient-ish in Latin and Classical (plus modern) Chinese, and am learning Manchu (the script looks pretty). On this blog there are some translations of Tang and Song poems (see Farwll My Concubin, my recent E-less rendition of the Bai Juyi classic), and, if you scroll far enough, brief discussions of Ovid and Horace.
  • (This all probably makes me sound like a sheltered, private-schooled eccentric! I went to an old and slightly bizarre state school with delusions of grandeur – that’s how I learnt Latin. I only got good at reading poetry to impress my crush, and it didn’t work. I worked out how to read Chinese from apps on my phone, to start with. It was a random choice of new language and it stuck – I’m obsessed with Chinese characters, the way Chinese verbs work, and the idea of being able to bring two separate cultures with separate histories together in my writing.)
  • My blog name means just that: this is a page on the internet which has been charmed/blessed/nested in by fairies. I believed in fairies as a young child and was always ‘away with’ them. I also admire the girls behind the Cottingley Fairies hoax. My subheading is the best bit from Thomas Chatterton’s very beautiful ‘Ælla, a Tragical Interlude’ (which almost involves my name, and thus is my signature poem which means I can get it inscribed on things and recited at my funeral)

My ideas

  • Lesbian culture and gay male culture have more in common than we think. For more, check out this essay I wrote (my favourite) about the overlap between male and female androgyny, the infantilisation of lesbianism, and villain-MILF-worship, and how these things are unified in the shared cultural domain of camp.
  • ‘Queer’ theory and language is demeaning to those it claims to encompass, and makes a sideshow of a great gay artistic tradition (with homoeroticism a fundamental element of Western art). Read this essay for more!

My mission

  • To post more here – about language/literature, art/film, etc. Also possibly lighthearted writing about my daily life and playlists.
  • To replace the current knee-jerk, hyperspeed online climate with one of careful consideration, context and measured connection
  • To write and illustrate my book (currently in progress!)
  • To find and revive in lesbianism the fetishised, sleek aesthetic of the 1930s
  • To decide how films should look – to edit an entire magazine (an actually stylish and interesting lesbian periodical) – and many other pipe dreams I am now too old to have.

Thank you! Enjoy my blog! I will attempt to engineer a proper posting schedule for myself now I’m on a year’s break from my degree. Let me know what you’d like to read about…

*I’ve disowned the radfem view of society as being essentially shaped by power differences between men and women. I also couldn’t stomach its two-dimensional ‘depiction = endorsement’ analysis of art made by men. I’m still pretty anti-sex-trade, especially where it concerns the gig economy, and mostly anti-online-pornography. I remain quietly sceptical of ideas underpinning trans theory, but hope (in my analysis and experience of lesbianism) to find some respectful common ground.

Tears of Pain: My Life as a Lesbian Aesthete

I have a particular taste in women. This is considered inappropriate to say as a lesbian (sorry – Woman Loving Woman) we are supposed to be ‘Inclusive’, especially in ‘Queer Spaces’, and to ‘Love all Women who Identify as Women’ because they are all ‘Totally Valid’ and to live by and propagate loads of other moralising platitudes that no straight man has ever had to encounter merely on the basis of his attraction to the female sex. But I still have a completely discriminatory taste in women and nobody can take this away from me even if it’s for my own benefit! Which it absolutely would be.

I am basically only attracted to women who could probably be vampires. You will probably know exactly what I’m talking about and I have made several Pinterest boards about it. I desire: the inability to flinch, dark and shady connections to questionable groups (I would take, and have taken, Scientology), archaic accents and strange voices, oddly tall and slender proportions that are simultaneously the rounded proportions of a woman in a Renaissance painting, smooth, refined manners, nefarious intentions, Felliniesque pallid complexions and strong profiles. I have only ever been seriously obsessed with women either twenty years older than me or deceased altogether (in a healthy way, eg. dead actresses in films who have smooth and antiquated mannerisms, not a necrophilia way). The lesbian-vampire trope is a real thing (seen everywhere from Victorian literature to 70s horror films) – hopefully there must be some biological and social rationale for it.

I spent years vilifying fetishists on my old blog, and now I admire their conviction and persistence. There is not enough societal allowance for young lesbian women to become fetishist-aesthetes: to be able to describe what they genuinely want, collect images and videos of what they genuinely want, and then to look for this with full discrimination, to the extent that gay men arguably now can and do. We have been trained (groomed) to Love All Women. The end result: boring and underwhelming romantic lives for All Women.

This French poster for Madchen in Uniform (1931) is the direct culmination of my lesbian-aesthete-fetishist-vampire aesthetic. It’s my favourite image – the lesbian equivalent of an equally homoerotic Leyendecker painting. The smooth, handsome profile of the woman on the left (Dorothea Wieck; I collect vintage photos of her as a rebellious act and coincidentally every single one is in profile) reflects exactly what I have been talking about. Bring on a new wave of exactly this!

I have been on speaking terms with only one vampire woman in my life. This four-year-long encounter ended with me memorising half of the Lord’s Prayer in German and reciting it over and over again as I wandered up and down a flight of steps and pondered about flinging myself to my imminent death (i.e it did not end well). Another used to live on my street but I only ever saw her from a distance. There is also a gloriously deep-voiced actress in America – my only living celebrity crush! – who I would describe as vampiric, except now she is pretending to be normal and sells her own line of kitchen utensils on the Home Shopping Network. I could search ‘goth woman’ on Google Images but this would tell me nothing about the subject’s air and mannerisms, possibly the most important things. The odd pretender might filter in. The accent might be all wrong.

Another issue: there is a vampire market for young lesbians. There is no young-lesbian market for vampires. This prompts repeats of the following scenario:

‘I love you, beautiful vampire lady’, I say.

‘Thank you,’ she replies. ‘By the way, this is my husband, Grog.’

Grog – a man two feet tall, resembling a threadbare gnome – waddles out of the shadows and into the cold light of day. He puts his arm protectively around the woman’s knee, because that is as high as he can reach. Grog looks more like her prematurely ageing son than her husband.

Grog has no discernible personality, decision-making system or inner life. I struggle to understand what his wife sees in him. I spend the night in bed crying.

What has the world come to? I am a seasoned connoisseur of female vampires and they themselves – in real life and the celebrity world – are seasoned experts at choosing the most underwhelming men to ever exist.

I have taken a year out of university and plan to use it to write and illustrate my rhyming lesbian-vampire-fetishist manifesto – an epic ode to the essential power of the refined, mysterious, immortal woman. Perhaps when I have tricked someone into publishing it, the world will finally wake up to this archetype, something surely and secretly rooted in the lesbian psyche, and my kind will follow the homosexual male in finally embracing the power of the fetishised aesthetic.

I translated Bai Juyi’s ‘Chang Hen Ge’ without using the letter E

Liao-dynasty wall painting of Yang Gui-fei

Bai Juyi is the best, most evocative Tang poet, methinks, and his Chang Hen Ge (Long Song of Regret) is one of the most beautiful and entertaining ‘really old’ things I’ve read in any language. It boasts rainbow fairies, aging eunuchs, Oz-esque trips to an amazingly bureaucratic fairyland, the fantastic innuendo of the hibiscus tent (芙蓉帐), and ghostly concubine Yang Gui-fei hanging around her ornate castle in a flower crown rather like Lana Del Rey in the Born to Die video. Obviously I had no choice but to translate it but with one twist: I was not allowed to use the most common letter of the English language. How did I do? Questionably.

Han dynasty monarch thinks only of waifs, roams without any luck. A girl first blossoms on Yang ground, still unknown, boudoir-bound.

Inborn charms too hard to avoid, sought for Han king’s flank. Lady blinking happily, myriad charmings; six floors now all shut out. A frosty spring bath at Huaqing Pool grants skin so shining. In Tsar’s favour, what good luck now! Why would any palatial girl try?

Cloudy hair and jangly sounds, a warm all-night hibiscus pavilion, which is cut short by morning. Why go into work at that? A lazy non-stop party, from spring to spring and from night to night. Trinity-thousand in his halls, and all for that singular man. Gold Room living, grooming maids, adding to his drunk spring chord.

For this do girls and boys split up our country – only that Yang family can do without any pain.

If only all mums and dads could birth girls! I do pity this – poor souls!

Rupturing clouds of aqua, our hilly Li Mansion – and fairy music floats through by wind.

Soft song, slow gyration, murmuring strings, and that Han monarch still missing in action.

From Yuyang do drum vibrations call: a fairy bursts in with rainbow shirt! All six-plus ways for Chang’an pass, watchposts burnt to dust. Myriad mounts now run out downward. Grassy flags float on and off – it’s still many li to our final goal.

Nothing to do, glorious Sixth Army: our glamorous girl now slaught by stallion-hoof.

And nobody to catch on impact that royal-hair-circling, ground-bound tiara. 

But a good knight cannot stop that soily flashback sight, that blood-sad concoction.

Slowly do pallid dusts and slow winds murmur through that famous road, winding up to Jian Pavilion.  Sparingly do civilians walk, small down from that high mount. Flags flash without light in its paling sun.

Cobalt swirls his Sichuan brook: Sichuan mountains stay but all cyan. Sky-aboving lords say sorry day and night.

His roving, monarchical soul is in anguish! Night-rains and jingling cut off his shouts.

Day-swirling, ground-turning, back gallops that chariot, unwilling to go forth from that point.

In muddy soil sits a hill without spark or vivacity. In situ: last living ruin.

Monarchs, wading through filth, swap looks; will that marathon mount gallop back from its halls?

On its arrival sit pools and parks, hinging. O, spurting pond! O, hibiscus plot and willows!

Hibiscus, you call Yang to mind – and willow, too, such as that girl’s charm: how couldn’t anybody mourn that? In spring’s wind blooms a night-blooming plum, and autumn’s rain brings its dynamic wings down to foot.

At a mansion by far, a yard by us, do ruby-crinkling clouds fill up our stairways, unraking.

Fragrant dancing girls, hair-frosting! In that spicy room: Castrato! Child! But now all wrinkly. Glow-worms fly softly at twilight; a solitary lamp, almost without oil, cannot lull our cast to Z.

Lazily rings out that chiming iron; it’s a long night. Tiny, our star-brook floats by, waiting for morning to burst.

Twin roof rocks lay icy, looking down to a solid mass of crystal blossoms. Now who wants to stay with him in that warm rococo bunk?

“Stay happy unto passing, and do not count your days, and Yang’s soul won’t pass into your nightly thoughts.”

A Daoist pilgrim, arriving to Chang’an, could swap his kingly truth for Yang’s young spirit.

To stop our dandy’s tumbling thoughts, look for that wizard with all your might!

Column-stallions rush as air, and sky-mounting, ground-digging, hunt for him.

Gift-shop sky is up, pallid katabasis is down; two worlds ambiguous, mutually unknown.

Who knows of plains of magic mountains, far, by boat? Stuck in a lacy-light, always-vanishing world? Of luminous forts, of tutti-frutti clouds, with fairy folk walking amongst, dainty-thin.

Within is a mortal – T . Z.  Skin just as snow, conduct blooming – you know, don’t you?

Knock on that door (Gold Building, W Wing), and ask Xiaoyu to pass it on.

From Han-tsar’s word did a spirit, half-faint, jump in its pavilion. Pacing, pillow-punching, shirt-twitching, finally from that labyrinth, its gold-paint and moondust, did Yang burst out.

Half-conscious, hair in clouds, crown of buds cracking apart: Yang finally walks downstairs.

Fairy-gowns blow away; rainbow skirts frolic, as if ballroom-bound. Salt-trails map Yang’s traumatic look: a rain-sunk sugar blossom. ‘Thank you, King’, says his maid, thoughts flooding, and as a unit two start to murmur.

Zhaoyang Plaza stops that charm; in Immortal Hall wait long days and nights. At final look, invisibility guards away that dust-cloudy Chang’an, that mortal coil. Only his high honours stay with him, gold hairpins trust for a Dao bishop.

Still at hand: pins, tin, gold all crack to shards. But tough as gold is that taught mind, dividing mutually for all sky-bound.

Yang’s words at parting – hold it in! – in Yang’s words a two-mind contract.

It’s a Sunday in July at Immortal Hall, and nobody’s soft words wisp out at midnight.

May at sky fly two birds, singly-flapping, and may from our ground grow two trunks twining.   

Thus shall our world’s clouds last, soil lay still, until all hours vanish away. Thus is this sorrow, always braiding forth, snaking forward, without conclusion.

Boom! (1968): A Bonkers Italianate Dreamscape

Ever thought to yourself, ‘Wow, I wish there was a late-60s French New Wave-derivative pseudo-art film where Elizabeth Taylor lives in a sprawling whitewashed mansion only accessible by funicular railway and constantly suffers from nervous fits, and Richard Burton is there and he has a samurai sword for some reason’?

Fear not! Your time has come! Joseph Losey has delivered, along with Secret Ceremony set dresser Jill Oxley! It is like nothing I’ve ever seen! I could not stop myself from screenshotting basically the entire thing and here are my findings with special exclusive commentary.

This iron tree structure really makes the atmosphere, I think. At some point Richard Burton’s character also fashions an Alexander Calder-esque mobile out of iron, which is unexplained. Did Calder get royalties? (This is interesting because a linguistics lecturer once pointed out to me that these mobiles resemble Chomsky’s syntax trees (C-structures), which are rooted in a supposed universal knowledge of grammar, ie. the linguistic equivalent of many psychoanalytic theories which have been used to explain mythology and dreamy films like this one.)

This shot is superb! Felliniesque! The glow of the enclave and the red costume of the Witch of Capri (played by Noel Coward), and the blood, but also look, a monkey! I actually really can’t recount the plot of this film properly because things like this kept happening and caused me to go into raptures. This composition is extra interesting though – we follow a path of red out onto a balcony, where violence turns into heterosexual desire…

Taylor’s character lives in a white cavern-y Mediterranean complex but also owns a smaller pink guest house with a Chagall mural on the wall/egg-shaped bed/equally pink carpet. This is my dream home. Maybe it’s supposed to look like a womb?

She also spends a lot of time dictating memoirs to her secretary, which turn into the most bizarre monologues ever. The script is so hysterical that it brings down the tone of the entire film, but in a nice way.

I love the way the costume designer has considered the cast as a whole while making colour decisions so nobody clashes in these few scenes. This betrays the film as more of an experiment in visual style than character or narrative – and that’s the way I like it!

I love the willingness to frame small figures against great swathes of wall and to shoot at dusk, something which transforms the overwhelmingly white building into an otherworldly dream marshmallow. You can see the guesthouse in the second screenshot – was it built for the film? Is it still there? It reminds me of some children’s programming I was served in the early 2000s but I don’t know what or how exactly (it was all a bit odd architecturally).

I really enjoy late 60s-early 70s Italianate cinema interior design (whitewashed walls, dark ornate furniture), and the influence of all that on this film is very clear – especially in these darkened scenes, where the green velvet armchair is a bridge between the usual contrast. She’s just making a phone call but this looks so cultic: lit candles and a roaring fire? A lectern?

Read my poetry, I BEG: here’s ‘Fly!’

I wrote a poem! This is a direct reaction to my blocking YouTube (my only music platform) across all my devices, realising the loss of lyrical content depressed me, trying to write songs, realising I did not have the patience required to learn music theory, then adding a million different puns, references and what people I look down upon would probably call ‘Easter eggs’. I absolutely think that I belong in the field of poetry – that I have come home. I blame several things for keeping me away for so long: English teachers attempting to make poetry ‘relatable and fun’ (ie. cringe and culturally bankrupt), googling the name of a student teacher in sixth form and finding a video of her slam poetry performance piece which explored gender variance through the metaphor of vegetables who can talk, and being trapped into several other spoken-word poetry performances since. Did you know that poetry can actually be written down? I have thankfully found that out again. I’m currently planning a translation of Farewell, My Concubine without any E’s (Farwll, My Concubin) but for now, here’s my first poem! It’s about several different things and intended primarily as revenge. I exclamation-marked the title because that should be standard for titles, in my opinion.

Fly!

The sonar falls and the lunar increases, 

sets at hand as you fall out of the 

sky, cycle past the rip, 

Links it so a harmless anchor yields you at the hip, green,

cloaked, lest I, standing and helpless at year’s begin, 

Madame! Inventor of the safety-pin! Dead. Downwards spiral. Despondent verb.

Listless in some autumn hail (what does it say?) and yet 

The rain arcs over, I do regret, she

Lolls in some amnesiac hell at Yemen

old mid-East, and here I scheme them.

(Many lactic returns for the chosen jewel

I am born again, and scattered over the tlantic.)  

Bring plots and plans to von Nordeck’s school – think of the glassy ball, the magic mirror, sand-timer, trailing satin, blood smoke. 

Heed distortion: two-strip, female glaze. 

Now struggle out from under-mansion,

leg immense, swells at her atrophied yard,

Cloud County, Wichita, and astra per aspera,

von Masoch, roared the lion, de Sade.

You lived it, sang at heart as yin-yang scansion, 

Pounce out over-coiled – lit in saffron 

angst, harsh and yellow, ready-tarred. 

Adrian, a devil-child! O, brag of your handiwork,

as she bursts at the flash, flammable sun.

Black-market kingdom, heidaodai.

“Loss is suffering, and hearts always yearn”

The phrase traces your path all under the sky.

Here are Flanders Fields, your dreadful earth, 

go if flower-fingered arrival requires drowse,

listen, Somnifera, for I must earn –

I’ll paint my face all lacquer-black – will let the xiaoren caw and grab

as they hang, Metro’s bats, acro-tacked. Old one! Gudian! 

Epithet –  analect – dialect, collis, -polis. Pneumatic sog.

Don’t take away my little dog. 

pollicere?

On Nina Hagen, the Underrated, Unhinged Musical Genius of the Cold War

I have been very busy in the last few months (someone decided to give me an actual job for some reason? I realised I could go on long cinematic tirades and send them in to my university newsletter and they would actually publish them? I discovered new ways to get ebooks for free? I watched too many films?). I will make up for it by going on about my favourite singer (who is currently under-analysed and under-listened to) instead.

Anglosphere commentators have been obsessed with ‘girl power’ rock musicians for a while now. Some of these obsessions are justified, some not, but for the best part of a decade a specific group of alt-rock women have been ubiquitous in discussion – Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love, Joan Jett, all of Sleater-Kinney. There is clearly a drive to centre a female outlook in criticism of a male-dominated genre, which I think is brilliant- but for one notable, curious omission. Nina Hagen, the German opera prodigy with the beautiful, eclectic, bilingual discography, is always left by the musical wayside, memory-holed. 1978’s monumental Nina Hagen Band album, which spans from reproductive protest (Unbeschreiblich Weiblich) to gorgeous prog-esque lament (Auf’m Friedhof – listen to it!) lies buried in the sand. 1982’s Nunsexmonkrock, although a) in English, b) a wonderful technical accomplishment, c) a stellar example of the sonic female psyche, has all but ‘been disappeared’. Angstlos (Fearless) and In Ekstase, Cold War masterpieces, are barely remembered, to say nothing for the low-stakes genius of 1991’s Street, maligned by even Hagen’s casual fans. Nobody I know in real life has heard of her. Some even announce proudly that they have not heard of her. I once played Naturtrane at a flat party and it totally killed the mood. When will the world wake up?

Listening to a Nina Hagen album is like stumbling into a simulated haunted house while also being on psychedelic drugs. Her songs are quotable, theatrical flights of fancy, often serving as political satire and sprinkled with surprise operatics (her vocal range once spanned around six octaves). My favourite of her spoken monologues is on Antiworld, where she recounts the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (‘Once upon a time…when Jesus was walking-down-this-way on Earth, he met this man who was possessed… BY A DEMON!’), but I also love Atomic Flash Deluxe, which, with its low-register refrain of ‘Babylon must fallllll’ is the actual musical equivalent of the ‘powerful sense of dread’ bit from Peep Show. Another song deserving of attention is 1993’s Gypsy Love, and its spoken interlude ‘On wild wild horses of cosmic evolution and across deserts of DEATH’.

Her Street album appears comparatively toned-down at first listen, but really deserves acknowledgement as the foremost camp masterpiece of its time – a little bit of the ’60s, shifted forward thirty years without really even being aware of it. Blumen für die Damen, for example, samples Rex Harrison (!) in My Fair Lady (1964) (!!!) In Love-Hi, she serves Elizabeth Taylor a catty put-down (possibly because nothing else would rhyme with ‘failure’) and thus also invites instant comparison. Gretchen is a Schubert lied but disco-style – it would not be out of place in Mae West’s last film. (I will not rest until everyone has seen Mae West’s last film.)

One notable thread across Hagen’s discography is her obsession with Zarah Leander (the Third Reich singing Nazi version of Greta Garbo). Her own theatricality, homosexual appeal and half-Jewish background create an interesting conflict here, culminating in my fan favourite Nina Hagen song, the homage-parody Zarah:

Hagen is often touted by her remaining fans as notable for experimenting with outlandish stage costumes ‘before Lady Gaga’. While I’m not a proponent of the ‘only ONE woman can dress weird EVER!’ rule, I totally concur with their admiration for her trailblazing fashion and makeup, and feel very let-down that it hasn’t yet been recognised, with later artists hailed as pioneers in her stead.

You will see Nina Hagen do and wear things you won’t see anywhere else. My favourite instances are when she nearly dresses like a normal performer, but not quite (see this legendary 1994 Spain performance, where she’s mocking the fact she has to sing playback and is also wearing enormous silicone breasts as part of her costume, and the time she went on a talk show dressed like 1960s Marlene Dietrich and ended up bellowing at Angela Merkel about drug reform.)

Obviously she has many defined visual ‘eras’ just like any modern alt-pop artist. I literally can’t pick a favourite because of all them are amazing and worthy of attention, so here are some highlights:

(nb. Angstlos is my favourite Nina album along with its English counterpart, but the outstanding visual example there is the video for Zarah, which I already linked above)

Nunsexmonkrock era (early 80s)

Christian iconography, androgyny, and dark discordant sounds.

In Ekstase era (mid-80s)

Very fun – many Cold War references, patterned tights and her most overt punk hair/makeup. Some have suggested that her In Ekstase styling might have influenced the current portrayal of superhero (?) Harley Quinn.

Nina Hagen era (late-80s)

I find it hard to sum up this era aesthetically, but I’m including this video because it’s one of my favourites ever made.

Revolution Ballroom era (mid-90s)

A note: This stage in Hagen’s career is very special to me, because it is so misguided but simultaneously unique and wonderful. At this point she got really into Hinduism (audiences today would call it ‘cultural appropriation’ – I think she’s actually very nice and respectful in the process – she clearly held a sincere spiritual interest), started dressing like the goths presumably did in 1994, and, unfortunately, engaged in HIV/AIDS denial, taking a book called Roger’s Recovery from Aids onto various French talk shows and even discussing it in gay clubs next to bemused drag queens. I understand in my heart that this is wrong, but it is now politically-aware 2021 and I treasure the opportunity to watch an eccentric travel around Europe, committing various well-intentioned but totally cancellable offences while dressed in head-to-toe latex. This kind of thing will probably never happen again and I want to write a sitcom about it.

Above all, Nina Hagen makes excellent, joyful, energising, manic music and it absolutely never fails to make me happy. I will leave you with three songs from my absolute favourite (gay-club-friendly, accomplished, fanciful, have at some point been obsessed with each and every song on this album) Angstlos phase:

My only commentary on this track is “What!!!!!!!! How!!!!!!” I’m about to start praying for those who persecute me. It’s a convincing song.

I’m picking the English version of this song because this helps me understand the lyrics, which are very funny and a perfect lampoon of French New Wave elitism. There’s also a great German version which you should NOT confuse with the Rammstein song Frühling in Paris (theirs is worse generally and more depressing, you couldn’t play it in a gay club. I hoped it would be a cover.)

I actually do fear death quite a lot, and this song has genuinely helped me to come to terms with it (or with the fact that actually it doesn’t exist). The fun, jaunty rhythm – the intermittent yodelling. Thank you Nina.

When I become attached to a prolific dead-or-very-old person, it’s usually at least partially because of what they represent in the wider world. Hagen, I believe, is the figurehead of many things that are very important to me – the notion of being both sophisticated and ridiculous, of using spirituality to enhance creative work, of paying attention to old films and music. I am proud to be one of her few remaining Anglosphere fans and think the time is ripe for more to discover her fantastic music.

Going Be-Sirk: ’60s Hong Kong Remakes the Hollywood Melodrama

Yes, there is a 1967 Hong Kong remake of Mildred Pierce – and all I have to say about it is OH MY GOD THIS IS AMAZING

‘Wow, you’re doing a Chinese degree?’ people like to say to me. ‘That’s so smart and forward-looking! China is becoming an economic superpower!’

Little do they know! I’m only taking Business Chinese because of scheduling conflicts, I spend much of my study time researching the origin of the chengyu I have to learn (there’s something appealing about quoting the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for professional gain), and instead of occupying myself with the Financial Times or discussing trade wars like the actual serious people on my degree who actually deserve to be there and probably never do anything wrong or regret anything, I have been trying to seek out the campiest Mandarin films of the 60s and 70s, which I like to watch in bed in total glee like some kind of flamboyant hibernating cinema stoat.

These have all been produced by the Shaw Brothers, but the ones I enjoy aren’t the company’s signature martial arts films – they’re melodramas, prototypical dramatic Hollywood women’s pictures transplanted to 1960s Hong Kong. All the new mod fashion and music is there, and they have clearly been influenced by the entrance of Cinemascope a decade earlier, meaning the best productions all look a bit like Godard’s Contempt. Instead of cutting-edge Nouvelle Vague direction, however, I’m met every time with around ninety minutes of Classic Hollywood-esque narrative delight.

Madam Slender Plum (1967, 欲海情魔 Yu Hai Qing Mo, lit. something like ‘The Romantic Demon in the Ocean of Desire’, dir. Lo Wei), remake of Mildred Pierce

Please excuse the Sohu logo, I really have been trying my best. Anyway the costumes in this film effortlessly transfer the spirit of the original to 60s Hong Kong! (ie. that’s a cheongsam and also she isn’t wearing enormous bear-like shoulder pads)

I didn’t realise this was supposed to be Mildred Pierce until half an hour in, when Diana Chang Chung-wen opened up her own restaurant and started arguing with her daughter. It significantly out-camps the original; I worried the main cast would not live up to the excellent portrayals in that version, but I needn’t have worried at all! The director seemed to have missed the stylistic point of the original by miles, eschewing Curtiz’s feminine take on film noir for something that reminds me a lot of Sirk, that Demy film I reviewed and, not even unfortunately, John Waters.

It helps that Veda Pierce, who is supposed to start as a young girl of about 12 and end up a young woman, is played by the clearly-grown-up Jenny Hu, who is made up consistently for the whole film, and is also obviously really tall. Veda’s little sister, who dies at the start of the film, doesn’t look much younger but still spends all her time onscreen holding an oversized teddy bear. I was reminded of Female Trouble and Taffy Davenport, except this isn’t even making a thing of it.

Miss Plum (Mildred Pierce) played by Chang, flanked by Hu as her ‘young’ daughter. Note the incredible set design.

The issues of misogyny present in the original become very tongue-in-cheek here. Miss Plum takes a job waitressing at a sleazy bar in the face of financial ruin, and is often harassed and objectified by male drinkers. She later opens her own, and in one of the most memorable scenes, lines a team of skimpily-dressed waitresses up for inspection.

Is this a protest against late-60s girlbossery to the detriment of the working woman? Is it engineered as a moral counterpart to the racist contradictions of the original, where Joan Crawford rises to the top but Butterfly McQueen remains in domestic drudgery? I think it’s an interesting sequence that adds a new dimension to the story. This is the sort of remake that doesn’t bother me at all!

Literally SUCH a masterwork of camp. Why are we supposed to think that Jenny Hu is a young child? Also perfect transcontinental styling yet again!

Remember the final twist in Mildred Pierce? We don’t really get that here; instead, the characters take turns accusing each other and taking the blame for the murder that begins the film, like a wholesome (God I hate that word) version of Rashomon. Luo strays very far from the original’s tone here; it is far more heartfelt, with familial love and no bloodthirsty acting.

I’m not going to lie, I LOVE the painting of peaches on the wall! It’s so good!

Torrent of Desire (1969, 欲焰狂流,dir. Lo Chen), remake of Written on the Wind

Jenny Hu singing (sidenote) a really beautiful song, in a really beautiful sequence

I will set this straight: I saw the original Written on the Wind a hell of a long time ago (was I doing A-levels? I’m not sure) and can’t make many useful comparisons because I can’t remember much of it. (I actually really want to rewatch the original because I’m now totally obsessed with late-stage Lauren Bacall and everything she’s done, and probably didn’t appreciate her performance enough the first time I watched it).

One thing I want to say about this remake: the set design is the best in any film. I’m not kidding! Just look at this!

Look at this hotel room! Conversation pit! White crystal chandelier! Guoxue woodblock prints! Almost-70s tree mural! Who designed this set and have they been living in my brain?

I’m not even going to say anything about this miraculous many-columned lilac hotel lobby, just look at it!

Also this bizarre Mexican ranch situation (did such interior design exist in real ’60s Hong Kong, or is this an imaginary America?)

And this completely OTT graveyard!

Here’s some set dressing in a style I like to call ‘Woah. What???’

There’s a sort of psychedelic almost-sex-scene here where (I’m pretty sure) the director was mimicking the rainbow lighting from another Sirk film, All That Heaven Allows:

Some of the costumes in this are brilliant (specifically, all of Angela Yu Chien’s costumes; she’s a fantastic character-y actress in this and I can’t wait to watch her other films). Take some screenshots and run:

In conclusion: why are these films not (gay) cult classics already? They’re so good and so overdesigned; I propose a charity scheme where they are subtitled, placed on hard drives and dropped through the chimneys of camp cinema fans worldwide. This was totally worth learning Mandarin for.