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The Olympics lift the spirits of a nation, but they can also crush the spirit of an individual.  There comes a point in everyone’s life, I suspect, when they must accept that they will never mount the podium and have a piece of metal handed to them by some Francophone bureaucrat from the IOC.  That is dismaying in itself.  But you have the additional indignity of watching an array of prodigious cherubs winning gold all around them to really compound your sense of loss.  There is nothing quite like seeing a Chinese teenager winning gold in the 4 x 100 Artistic Clean-and Jerk Greco-Roman Bantamweight Road Race Medley to make you feel like your best years are behind you.  Because compared to that Chinese child, they certainly are.

Despite my quadrennial loss of self-esteem, I decided to embrace the Olympic spirit.  And so I remedied another cultural oversight on my part, which is to watch a film I’d never seen, namely Chariots of Fire.  Or, in the spirit of the IOC, Les Chariots de Feu. As a seasoned runner myself, my not having seen it is a shocking oversight.  Even my Present Husband was aghast, and you’d think there’d be precious left for him to be aghast about after all these years.  Just shows you that being married to a cultural neophyte brings endless novelty to a relationship.

Chariots of Fire really is a trip back to a simpler era characterised largely by tweed and religious fervour. You could use words like exhort and splendid and no-one would snort derisively.  And the sporting standards of the day bear no resemblance to our modern industry.  Motivational aids? Gilbert and Sullivan coupled with brisk anti-Semitism.  Your backroom team?  And old Italian guy.  High tech equipment?  A bit of chalk to draw a starting line. A trowel to dig the holes at the starting line where you feet go (a silver trowel, of course). A pocket watch.  The team transport?  A train followed by a rickety ferry.  A crisis of conscience about running on the Sabbath?  A team-mate, content with his silver, gives up his place in his heat on a Thursday just to see you run.  Performance enhancing drugs? Tobacco.

Happy days.

Nonetheless, the spirit of Chariots of Fire has changed very little.  Athletes today face many similar challenges – maintaining a gruelling training schedule, combining that training with work and so on.  (Well, Eric Liddell seemed to be holding down a job.  Certainly persuading his disapproving sister to take on the mission in China in his stead was a full-time occupation in itself.)  And something else that is true of sport to this day would be the clash of commitments and values that it can  set off.  Of course, few athletes today are bothered by the prospect of running on the Sabbath.  A runner today is more likely to struggle with his endorsement of Nike forbidding him from racing in an event sponsored by Adidas.

Chariots of Fire is an inspiring film.  Makes me want to get out running myself.  Except I too am experiencing a clash of commitments and values.  Between wanting to go out and run and wanting to stay here and drink a lovely bottle of sauvignon blanc.  The remarkable Lord Lindsey, athlete and bon viveur of Chariots of Fire, could reconcile the two.  Sadly for international athletics, I cannot.  And that, as much as anything else, is why the Chinese teenagers get the medals and I do not.

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Watching the film Titanic is not a new experience for me, so I’m cheating on this one.  But I’d like to be ‘on trend’ for once.  Because of the centenary of the sinking, everyone else is talking about the ship so I thought I’d re-visit the film to see if my views have changed since I first saw it in 1997.  Also, it’s another stall while I work up the courage to watch a Stephen King film like I said I would.

Spoiler Alert: The ship sinks in the end. Plus, my views haven’t changed.

What is the allure of the sinking of the Titanic above, say, the Lusitania or any other vessel?  Lots of things. It was probably one of the first tragedies of the media age.  There were a lot of photos and there was plenty for the burgeoning mass media industry to write about.  And of course there was the rigid social stratification of the boat. But be honest, who doesn’t hanker for the simpler era when the lower orders knew their place?  Which is to say, below decks, behind locked gates, de-loused and after you in the queue for the lifeboats.   But mostly I think the allure stems from the sheer folly of the enterprise.    It’s difficult to avoid the sense that you could go back and prevent the terrible tragedy.   Watertight compartments not being quite watertight enough (or some such).  Heading out into the deep blue yonder without enough life boats.   Increasing speed despite iceberg warnings.  Not filling the lifeboats to capacity when evacuating.   Not turning the lifeboats around fast enough when the ship was gone.

But of course, deep in the recesses of your mind, you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if you had been there yourself.  Who would you have been?  The cheery, welcoming, social transgressive, Molly Brown?  The honourable but tortured ship designer, Thomas Andrews?  Or the brave, resolute Benjamin Guggenheim?  He dressed in his evening wear and sat stoically with his valet waiting for death , saying “No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”   (Although personally I would have let the valet take his chances)  Or maybe Ida Straus, who refused a place in the lifeboat to die with her husband, Isidor.  And this they did, holding hands at the waves swept them out to sea.  I suppose we all like to think we would have behaved honourably – eschewing a place on the last lifeboat in order to save countless shivering orphans, somehow surviving the sinking by sheer dint of personality (and also the foresight of having put on warm attire).

Whatever about the actual Titanic, surviving James Cameron’s 1997 epic film of the same name is an ordeal of its own.  Let me be positive and say it is a sumptuous achievement visually and technically.  And it brings the brutality and inhumanity to our understanding of the events.  The sinking of this boat is not a genteel affair.  People die cruelly, barbarically and arbitrarily.  Nonetheless, it is a fairly dreadful film in so many ways.  Chief among them is the dialogue.  My favourite was “Rose: You see people/ Jack: I see you.”  That just needed a “peekaboo” to complete the absurdity.  Equally absurd are the cyphers walking around masquerading as fully-drawn characters.  Although, maybe I’m being unfair.  Maybe all rich people are emotionally fossilised.  Maybe all Irish people are cheery, musical drunks who are embracing of cultural diversity.   Just because I myself am not musical, who’s to say?

I have no idea what I would have done aboard the Titanic, but I do know what I would have done had I been on James Cameron’s ship.  I would have kicked the boy Leo into the briney deep and rushed headlong into the warm, sultry embrace of one Billy Zane Esq.  Because this is the most absurd part of the film for me.  Thomas Andrews  (and, by the way, Worst. Northern Ireland Accent.  Ever.) seemed to think Rose was bright and observant, but clearly the girl couldn’t see what was staring her in the face like a looming iceberg.  In what reality does a girl wade through the freezing, rapidly-rising Atlantic waters to save Leonardo di Caprio when there is a warm, dry and preposterously gorgeous Billy Zane up on deck happily bribing his way onto a lifeboat on your behalf?  You may call it amoral venality, I call it a healthy solutions-orientation.  What’s not to like about that?  You’ve only got to stay with him as far as the lifeboats, you ninny!

Let’s pause for a moment to contemplate the loveliness of the man again.

Ahh…..

I can ponder it all I like but the fact remains that had I been on the real Titanic I wouldn’t have got within forty fathoms of the first class deck.  It would have been steerage for me and my kind, cheerily dancing the night away with the huddled masses yearning to be free.  And then huddling in the rapidly rising stern and then finally huddling on a piece of flotsam, facing into the ugly reality of my own imminent demise.  But that’s still a more attractive prospect than watching the film Titanic again.

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A Postscript

Two things.  First, my next port of call in making up for lost time, culturally speaking, will be to watch an Alfred Hitchcock film.  Yes, it’s true.  I’ve never seen any of his work. I am very conscious that I’m exposing my vulnerabilities here and am likely to be taken for a knuckle-dragging oik, so be nice.  I blame my early childhood.  I remember my mother watching The Birds while ill in bed and very heavily medicated.  She seems to have suffered some sort of mind-altering trauma as a result.  That, plus I’m a snivelling wussy.  So if anyone would like to suggest a good starting point for a Hitchcock neophyte, fire away.

Second, my Present Husband has pointed out that I have in fact been to Ballyporeen.  I don’t remember it at all and apparently we were only there because we got lost after my poor directions.  Nonetheless, very disloyal of him to point it out.  Fear not, I’ll cook up some fiendish twist to upend him.  Hence my real need for a Hitchcock film.

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I’m not a fan of New Year Resolutions.  There is something arbitrary about the whole process.  And the fact that I am not a size 10 should tell you how effective they are.  Nevertheless, I thought I would start the New Year by resolving to expand my horizons just a little. I’ve decided to explore some experiences that have passed me by.  I speak not of solvency or sanity, since seeking those really would be futile.  Instead, I’m going to concern myself with a few milestones that I seem to have skipped along the way.

 
Let’s not get carried away.  There are lots of experiences I haven’t had that I’m in no rush to embrace.  I’ve never broken a bone.  I haven’t had my tonsils or appendix removed.  In fact, all my original parts are still intact, except of course my marbles.  But, like tonsils and appendixes (appendices??), a person can live a long and happy life without them.  No, that sort of things doesn’t make me an oddity.  Nor does never having been to Minsk or Slough or Ballyporeen.   Or never having been arrested or divorced (although, I’d be prepared to give either a punt if I thought they would bring me a little free time).

 
But missing out on some experiences does seem to mark one out as a sort of socio-cultural deviant.  And so I thought I would begin my project today with one such experience, which was to watch Citizen Kane.  No, seriously, I’d never seen it.  I don’t know how you accumulate decades of adulthood, incorporating four years of college life with some incredibly pretentious bores, without having see this cinematic classic.  But I hadn’t.  Until today.

 
I wish I’d watched it years ago.  It’s a remarkably achievement.  Everything about it is just right – cast, dialogue, lighting, sets, editing.  And so prescient.  It predicted so much of what is insidious and wrong in modern society – venal bankers, gutter journalists, megalomaniac media barons, rampant consumerism, the great heights the mediocre can reach with the media behind them and the erosion of all manner of personal liberties.  Is it possible to see the megalomaniac Kane, manipulating public opinion for his own ends, and not think of Simon Cowell?  Is it possible to look at Xanadu, that empty shrine to the worst excesses of an amoral businessman, and not be reminded of countless zombie estates in Longford?  Is it possible to see Susan Alexander, a mediocre singer with a media machine behind her, and not think of Jedward?  But for all their faults, the characters are possessed of occasional wisdom.  Kane was right about news becoming a twenty-four hour business.  He was also right about the relationship between politicians and journalists and about the pointlessness of jigsaws.  Susan Alexander was right about the compulsive need for love in those who are fundamentally unlovable and also about the awfulness of picnics.

 
Not only do I wish I’d watched it years ago, but that I’d done so before I’d seen any number of later films.   The Godfather, The Truman Show, loads of Simpsons episodes, Pinky and the Brain,  Apocalypse Now and Blazing Saddles, to name but a few.  Yes, you heard me.  I now know where Hedley Lamarr comes from.  (Ooops, that’s Heddy!)  This process I’ve embarked upon strikes me as something like filling in the blanks in my cultural worldview.  Or, if I may extend the Citizen Kane metaphor, completing a jigsaw.  Except, like Kane himself, I think they’re pointless.

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