Death Cafe Birmingham

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Ever given up a sunny Sunday afternoon to sit around and talk death with a bunch of strangers?  I did last week for Birmingham’s first Death Cafe, which took place as part of The Electric’s Shock and Gore festival.

The Death Cafe is a voluntary group, developed in London by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid.  There objective is simple: ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.  Birmingham’s first meeting was held in The Victoria Pub and organised by Carrie Weekes, a soon-to-be undertaker, and Sharon Hudson, a palliative care nurse specialist – with sweet treats from Conjurer’s Kitchen, and a room rather surreally decorated for a themed Dr Sketchy’s later.

With a three-course list of questions, we sat in groups of eight and discussed attitudes to death, end of life care and what we’d like to see at our own funerals.  It was interesting to see the diversity of ages and experiences – from those working with people at the end stages of their lives, to people caring for elderly relatives and those who were just curious.  It also fascinating to see people’s experiences of talking about death in the everyday; from parents whose children didn’t want to discuss ‘what happens if…’ to those who’d written wills and had paperwork sorted for every eventuality.  Topics of assisted suicide, organ donation and the debate about knowing how long you have left were all covered too.

Cake pop & menu

Cake pop & menu

It sounds strange, but I left the Death Cafe feeling oddly energised.  It gave me the opportunity to think about my own experiences with death, how better to live and questions to ask of loved ones.  For a few hours talking about death, I felt oddly more appreciative of my family and my life.

Would I go back?  You know, I think I would.

Check out http://deathcafe.com/deathcafes/ for information on the next Birmingham Death Cafe.

Life’s too short to read bad books

I vividly remember the first book I never finished.  It was Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and I hated it.  Up until that point I read everything veraciously and this was the first book that I struggled through, that gave me reader’s block and made me struggle with whether it was okay to give up on a book.

And my answer is yes.

I’ve rarely found anyone who has given up on a book did so without good reason, even if that reason is that they didn’t like it; there’s often reasons why they didn’t.  It’s why the book club I run has a rule that you don’t have to finish the book.  Rarely do I find that people didn’t finish a book because they ran out of time, and if they did it’s usually because something was preventing them from picking up the book in the first place.  But if someone doesn’t finish a book, there’s usually just as much to talk about as those who mercifully struggled to the end.  Hated the plot, the characters or the writing style?  Great, lets discuss why!  Books people don’t finish often make better book club books anyway.

Thankfully it’s not just me who thinks it’s okay to give up on a book, even as a self-described reader / bookworm.  Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project (which is a great book) talks about the relief of giving up on a book and letting go of the sense of obligation.  And Adele Parks advised a teacher not to force young people to finish a book if they hated it at a World Book Night event I went to.  So if authors are advising people to give up on books they hate it seems reasonable to do so.

But when do you give up on books?  Writer Jen Doll suggests preserving with 100 pages.  I tend to go for 100 pages or 10% of the book before making a judgement, but some times the first five pages are enough.  This way I avoid the guilt that comes with leaving a book unfinished; I’ve given myself a point where it’s okay to just admit it’s not for me.

What do you think, am I admitting defeat too early, should I struggle on and finish what I started?  Or is life just too short to read books you don’t like?

Congratulations on the smug political status update

I’ve wanted to write this for days, but it felt a little improper to do so before polling stations closed and results were read out.

Pre-election and even on the day, my social media feeds have been full of mockery of political parties, jokes about delayed election days for certain voters and a number of other equally silly things.  I’m sorry, call me a killjoy but I don’t get the joke.

I like democracy; sure, I think my opinion makes the most sense (otherwise why would I hold it) but I like that democracy is ultimately about the masses deciding.  The right of a political party to exist, no matter how much I agree or disagree with their policies, is part of what makes this a great system.  But a philosopher once told me that you argue against something’s strongest points not its weakest.  It’s why I’ve always been against no platform policies and more recently why I’ve been annoyed at these Facebook statuses and tweets – and I love sarcasm.  Sure, mocking something is kind of arguing against it; but is it really an effective way to changing people’s minds – are you even reaching those people who are genuinely planning on voting for those parties you vehemently dislike so much?  Maybe the question should really be were you even trying to reach them via social media?  Because to me, at least, it just looked like a group of smug self-congratulating updates which spectacularly failed to do anything useful – and the results seem to agree with me.

So here’s my plea – and you may call me idealistic for it.  Next year it’s a general election and if you care so much about whom people vote for, get off your bums and do something useful.  If you’re passionate about a political party then join them and hand out flyers and speak to people to convince them to your party is best.  If you’re passionate about not voting for a certain political party then effectively debate with people who might be tempted to vote that way about why that party’s policies are incorrect and what the alternatives are.  Point out flaws in an argument in a way that will actually engage with people.  Talk to people who feel disengaged, tell them to register their dislike of all the parties by spoiling their ballot so their voice is counted.  Stand for election.  Hell, start your own party if you like.

But above all, do something that might actually count.

World Book Day – three Birmingham authors to check out

Today it’s World Book Day in the UK and what better way to celebrate than by picking up a good book by a Birmingham based author?  Here are three contemporary authors which i think are well worth checking out…

Benjamin Zephaniah

Writer, poet, lecturer and born in Handsworth, he is well worth seeing speak live as reading some of his work.  Having published (and performed) a slew of poetry, he has also released several novels aimed at young people.  He also did a blinder of a talk at the University of Birmingham’s annual Baggs Memorial Lecture on the topic of happiness and was in BBC TV show Peaky Blinders.  If you’ve never heard, seen or read anything by this man you’re really missing out.  http://benjaminzephaniah.com/

Katharine D’ Souzaparklife2

I read Katharine’s first novel Park Life a couple of years ago and adored it.  It follows the lives of two people who live in the same block of flats, with South Birmingham being almost a supporting character – and those in the know will be able to spot references to Kings Heath / Moseley, which just added to the book for me.  Katharine has since released a second book which I’m looking forward to reading soon. http://www.katharinedsouza.co.uk/

Mike Gayle

Ex-agony uncle (no really, check out his website) and author of a stack of bestsellers, Mike Gayle in a Brummie born and bred.  He’s also set a few of his books in Brum, namely Turning Thirty and its sequel Turning Forty, which is also set in South Birmingham.  But his other books are set in London, Manchester and there’s even a non-fiction book, The To Do List.  His books are light-hearted (except maybe My Legendary Girlfriend, that one’s a bit darker) and often confusingly called chick lit.  If you’re looking for a beach read, then you can’t go wrong with some of Mike’s novels. http://www.mikegayle.co.uk/

Some other authors with links to Birmingham worth checking out are: W. H Auden (you know the Stop all the Clocks / Funeral Blue poem from Four Weddings), R J Ellory, Catherine O’Flynn (her first novel What Was Lost is set in a shopping mall which may or may not be Merry Hill), Lee Child, J. R. R. Tolkien, Arthur Conan Doyle (spend some time working in Brum) and Malala Yousafzai.

So, what are you reading this World Book Day?

50 films in 2013: How I did

It’s a new year and time to reflect; in January last year I challenged myself to watching 50 films at the cinema in 2013.  Well the year is over and how did I do? I aimed for 50…I managed 74. 

So how did I do it?  The short answer is with some good planning, a Cineworld Unlimited card and a ‘why not’ attitude.  Turns out if you have a a cinema pass and spend some time checking running times you can see three films in one day.  A big thanks to the staff at the Birmingham branch of Cineworld for their general amusement at me rocking up and getting three tickets – and even double checking my timings (and a special thanks to Megan who was brilliant when my mum and I saw Gone With the Wind).  I also saw films in the local independent cinema, in the basement of a coffee shop as part of the inaugural Birmingham Architecture Festival, an arts centre, a warehouse as part of the Jameson Cult Film Club and a couple of other cinemas – thanks to them too.

The most important thing for me was that all the films I saw were films I actually wanted to see; I was determined that I wasn’t going to complete the challenge watching things I’d felt forced into watching.  Sure I saw some trash, I’m not going to apologise for that, but I also saw some great films too.  A couple of the films I enjoyed: The Way, Way Back; Rise of the Guardians; Much Ado About Nothing; Frances Ha; Frozen; Chico & Rita…and a few of the others!

I’ve uploaded the full list of 74 films here.  This year I’m going to try and keep my ‘why not’ attitude towards cinema going, but I’m not going to set myself a number.

Shapes, words and reminders

I’m sat here in the new library, looking out onto Birmingham with my wrist bandaged up like a prize fighter. Today marks the day I got my first tattoo. I always thought I’d be the kind of person never to get one; I always said there was nothing I liked enough to chose to mark my skin with every day. But this has been a hard year and I’ve resorted back to one of the things that helps me to remember to persevere.  And when I thought about it, I’ve been doodling this on my wrist on and off for ten years, this little purple star.

It’s funny because my mind remembers in pictures, shapes and colours; I’m hopeless with names but I will remember where on a shelf a long forgotten book is or the route to somewhere I rarely go. But words, words and stories, have always been my first love, in all their shapes and sizes. During hard times I always retreat to stories; books, music and film; to quotations and lines from songs.  Tell me a story, better yet put it in a song, and it has the power to stop you in your tracks…or struggle on through.

I have a quote for most occasions and several for when things are tough and you keep going, but the one I always come back to is from New Found Glory; “every darkness, I’ll shine through”.  Life is full of struggles, big and small, but keep shining. It’s the same message as Winston Churchill’s “If you’re going through hell, keep going” or Disney’s Finding Nemo “just keep swimming”.  Life is wonderful and hard, awesome and awful, it’s so simple and wonderfully complex, but it’s worth persevering even when things aren’t as good as they could be.

Someone I once heard talk said tattoos didn’t have to have meaning, they can just be artworks in their own right, and he’s right. To most people who might see this little purple star and I’m okay with that because stars are pretty awesome in so many ways. But to me it’s so much more.

A little peace in moving house

Over the last couple of months I’ve come to fully appreciate why it is they say moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do.

From our lovely Colourful House, my (now ex) housemates and I divided up 4.5 years’ worth of things and moved our separate ways.  To most people three girls moving out should be easy but we lived like a little family, so much of our stuff was shared.  In the end I devised games to make the ownership of miscellaneous items that we would probably need at some point easier.

But some things we couldn’t justify taking.  All three of us were big readers, myself probably the most ferocious.  We were lucky in our old house to have a room almost solely dedicated to books with fantastic in-built bookcases.  But, as is whenever I move, I couldn’t take them all.  Two boxes of books went to a local school and a car boot-full or books and comics went to a local charity shop.  A box of cables and a chair went to work, anyone that came to visit in the last month went home with something.

But my favourite story about our move was a phenomena that exists in Kings Heath, something I’d never noticed in anywhere else I lived; doorstep freecycle.  Amongst the maze of suburban streets in this suburb of Birmingham you will often find little piles of things with notes attached – “I’m free, take me” or “looking for a good home” or sometimes no note at all.  They’re always perfectly good items that are no longer needed in the house they sit outside.

We left a few items outside; a collection of glasses, decorative plates and an uplighter.  The glasses disappeared to a new home without us knowing, but we hope the wine glasses are providing an interesting anecdote to a party.  The oversized gold plates palmed off on me by my mother, were picked up by a woman who told us that she worked for a charity which did a massive tea party for disabled people each year and they never had enough plates, these would be perfect.  And the uplighter went to a man who had been meaning to go get one for months but never had the time and was so genuinely pleased with his freebie I think we made his day.  If we didn’t, he and the charity lady certainly made ours.

Moving house is hard; stressful, tearful and a slog of a marathon.  I had some great friends and family members whose help was invaluable – and some strangers too, who will probably never know how much.

50 Film Challenge #5-8

January is always a busy month at the cinema as it seems to be when all the Oscar films are out in the UK.  It’s also why I ended up at the cinema eight time this month.  Here are the other bunch of reviews…

5. Gangster Squad

With a mob king virtually ruling the streets of LA in the 1940’s, a group of street-hardened cops are tasked with a clandestine operation to clean up the streets, but there’s one rule: no badges.

This film could’ve been so much more than it was and yet some how that didn’t matter so much.  It was certainly watchable and nice to see Gosling and Stone reunite, but the plot was a bit gangster-lite.  The gloss of the film makes it difficult to take it seriously as the portrayal of the mob, but will hopefully encourage people to see out some grittier films. 3/5

6. Les Miserables

Set during the French revolution this epic based-on-a-play-based-on-a-book tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a man searching for redemption whilst being pursued by a ruthless policeman.  A rags-to-riches tale, when Valjean agrees to take care of a young girl his life changes forever.

Presumably another example of translating from the stage straight to the screen this film attempts to employ the tricks of the theatre and in so misses some interesting plot details (particularly Valjean’s journey from outcast to respected and wealthy factory-owner).  Overly long and lacking in any real narrative plot this certainly has some emotional issues but they feel exploitative.  But Hugh Jackman’s performance is superb however. 3/5

7.  Wreck It Ralph

Video-game baddie Ralph is fed up of being the outcast in the game he has played for decades.  Taking matters into his own hands he escapes and goes game-hoping across the arcade in search of a way of being accepted.

An entertaining film with cameos from retro computer game characters that are sure to keep the adults as interested as children, this is an adorable blend of humour and heart.  Ralph is a great character, labeled as the baddie he just wants to be accepted.  An utterly charming film (as is the short film shown before). 4/5 

8. Zero Dark Thirty

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow turns her attention to the CIA’s decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  CIA agent Maya arrives as the tides are changing, torture as a method of gaining information is on the way out as the agency is forced to resort to conventional tactics which are at times hampered by man power and vast amounts of data.

Despite being a film where the ending is know, the film works much like a slow-burning thriller that builds to a cool but edging will-they-won’t-they.  At 2hrs 37mins this is another ‘bladder-buster’ of a film but each minute feels worthwhile.  Chastain is a great lead, although the hints of her background (recruited straight out of high-school and almost single-minded in her determination) could’ve been explored a little more.  Despite criticism the film gives a considered look at the use of torture in evidence gathering and a lack of jingoism makes this one film well worth seeing. 4.5/5

50 films in 2013 challenge and first reviews

I’m a big fan of the cinema, which is probably why I ended up there 38 times last year.  This sounds a lot, but with one of those Unlimited cards and a slight Batman obsession it didn’t feel like it.  In fact it felt like I should’ve gone more.  So in 2013 I’m aiming to…in fact I’m aiming to go 50 times this year.

I’ve bought a notebook to record each of the visits, but I’m also going to blog very short reviews here, because if the internet knows I’ve challenged myself to go 50 times then I kinda have to do it.  Why 50?  Well it’s a nice round number for starters, but that’s one a week with a two week holiday (or a two week break for when the only thing showing is Furious Paranormal Extreme Sawing VII or whatever crap is on).  Oh and it totally counts if I see more than one film in one visit because cinema days are awesome, but I’m not sure whether seeing the same film does yet.  I guess there are still a few things to figure out.

I’ve made some good progress…

1. Rise of the Guardians

The Immortal Guardians, including the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Sandman and the Tooth Fairy, require the help of Jack Frost to defeat the evil spirit Pitch Black / Bogeyman who aims to infect the world’s children with fear.

Despite being a film squarely aimed at kids this film was surprisingly enjoyable.  Hugh Jackman’s Easter Bunny with anger management issues and the yoda-like Sandman are particularly favourites as the team battle to save hope, belief, imagination and joy of children worldwide.  Leaving cynicism at the door this is fun-filled and sure there are some plot holes, but ultimately enjoyable. 4/5

2. Playing for Keeps

Gerrard Butler plays an ex-football superstar who has never really learnt to deal with life off the pitch.  As he arrives back in the hometown of his ex-wife and son he tries to bond with his son through coaching the local football team, where he also catches the eye of the local Soccer Moms.  But can he convince his ex-wife he still loves her before she marries someone else?

Squared fairly in the romantic comedy genre this film was trying to be so much but ultimately failing.  Well known actors like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman and Dennis Quaid are criminally under-utilised in a film which just never really hits its mark.  Someone needed to go through this script with a red pen because it could’ve been a lot better.  Falls into the nothing-better-to-do afternoon on the telly viewing if you’re going to watch.  Shame really. 1.5/5

3. Life of Pi

Adapted from the best-selling novel by Yann Martel this is the story of a young man whose family set sail for the West in search of a better life, only for him to survive a shipwreck which sees him stranded on a lifeboat with a bengal tiger.

Largely believed to be an unfilmable book, Ang Lee does a decent job of making this a watchable film, but ultimately I still think it’s one best left to the page.  The fantastical, magical realism of a man and a tiger adrift was beautiful but lacked much real sense of fear.  An enjoyable twist to the tale is lost in what is a juddering ending which doesn’t give the audience time to consider the alternatives.  Ultimately a visual display which is worth seeing if only for the tiger, but probably best to read the book. 3/5

4. The Impossible

Based on a true-life tale of one family’s fight to be reunited after the Boxing Day Tusnami in 2006.  Maria, Henry and their three sons are holidaying in Thailand when a wall of water destroys almost everything in its wake, splitting the family and leaving behind an incredible devastation.

A brave story of a terrible natural disaster is let down by a terrible music placement.  The scene-setting calming waters are interrupted by a farcical Jaws-like theme and deeply emotional scenes are ruined with imposing, ill placed tunes.  Aside from that the film has great casting, particularly that of Tom Holland who plays Lucas, a character who steals the show.  The gratuitous shots of Naomi Watts is disappointing, as is the film’s treatment of the indigenous people who seem to exist only as help for the westerners, even in the aftermath when thousands lost their life.    An attempt at giving a more identifiable view to an overwhelming natural disaster which just fell short. 2.5/5

A trip to the Secret Dining Society (Pop)

Turn up to a random location to be led to a “dining experience” sounds like the beginnings of some kind of horror film, so the fact that my trip to the Secret Dining Society was focused around cinema food seemed fairly apt. (spoiler – it had a happy ending)

After pitching up to the Old Crown in Digbeth and finding some equally looking confused people we were rounded up and taken to the Custard Factory wherein we were offered some delicious chilli popcorn and nachos.  Usually at the cinema I’m a bucket of Diet Coke and a sack of sweet popcorn kind of girl, so made-on-demand popcorn with a deliciously spicy edge could have me persuaded.   And the nachos; the bready, creamy cheese sauce was just delicious.  Plus there were drinks a-plenty, soft drinks or something a little stronger with a nice range of beers and wine.

Candy floss

We were then shepherded into the Custard Factory’s very own cinema and treated to some clips of some of the best food related clips from films – from When Harry Met Sally to Hook.  Afterwards it was time for more popcorn, nachos…and CANDY FLOSS.  I’ve never had candy floss in a cinema which is probably a good thing because part of the fun is ripping the clouds.  Still having candy floss during the break was ace and even better they’ve managed to marry sweet spun sugar with savoury flavours.  Perfect.  We were then back in to round off the food clips before heading out for the main attraction.

Hot Dogs…with bacon bits and mustard and ketchup and salad and, if you wanted, hot sauce.  And then seconds.  The sausages were nice a meaty and there was proper mustard, plus plenty of salad.  I ended up having to pull off half my toppings, so it was almost like eating twice.

A loaded hotdog from the event

Almost as though the food clips before were trailers, we settled down for the main show; a rather odd Japanese film called Tampopo.  To be honest trying to explain this film would be rather miss the point of its oddness (although Wikipedia does a good job of explaining the plot if you really want to know), but coupled with some scoops of specially-made ice cream from local ice cream parlour Entices, it was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

There has been some criticism of the event as not being entirely food focused and I think this either missed the point of the event or showed the lack of imagination in the audience.  Personally I was going for an experience with the promise of some good food, I never expected to be stuffed full like some sort of foie gras duck.  What I got was some delicious food which is miles better than anything I’ve ever had at a cinema, watch a film I’d never normally have the chance to and a different way to spend a Sunday afternoon all focused on food.  I’m not sure what was not to like.

The next Secret Dining Society is entitled Fire and is on the 18th August and tickets are available here.  I’m in London that day otherwise I would go.