Little Atoms | The trouble with mermaids, or “Is life really much better down where it’s wetter?”


This was the game. In the real world, I was lying on the sloping edge of Melton Leisure Pool sometime in the 1980s, shuffling my child body down into the water; in my imagination, I was on the sea shore and the irresistible ocean had come to take me and make me a mermaid. It was a game played entirely alone, because its object was utter and perfect passivity.

Some people never stop playing mermaids. At conventions such as Mer-Mania in North Carolina, Merfest in Florida, or Merfolk UK, hundreds of adults gather to, as the Merfolk website puts it, “transform [themselves] into a magical mythical being from the depths of the ocean” and swim with the “Mer-community”. (These gatherings are not uniformly idyllic: Mermania 2017 was reportedly riven with cyberbullying and physical confrontations between merfolk, leading to the Mail dubbing it “the DARK SIDE of the real-life mermaids”.)

Read the full essay at Little Atoms

Vermin and critics

You know I love Pixar. One of the things that Pixar do supremely well is to make up new, self-contained worlds existing parallel to the real human one. And while Pixar’s animations have an extraordinary depth of humanity, the humans in the films are nearly always the menace to the fictional world. In Monsters Inc, kids are infectious agents who have to be confined and cleansed. In Toy Story, the toys are painfully vulnerable to their owners’ changing affections. And it’s the same in Ratatouille: humans threaten the rat-heroes with poison, guns and gibbets. When gastronomically-gifted rat Remy forms a bond with aspiring chef Linguine, the human world still menaces, in the form of a grasping head chef and a baddie food critic Anton Ego.

Anton Ego(Image © Disney/Pixar.) Wait, the villain is a critic? It seems almost churlish for a movie-making team who have had a conspicuously (and deservedly) smooth run with reviewers to make an assault on critics (Ratatouille hauls in a stupendous 96% fresh rating on the Tomatometer), but there you are. And not only is Ego a critic, but he’s a vociferously negative critic who rediscovers pleasure in a moment of Proustian bliss, then issues a long and thoughtful mea culpa before giving up criticism for creation:

In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to a new talent, new creations. The new needs friends…

This is a description that marks critics as inferior to what they criticise. They’re parasites on culture. They’re feeding on the detritus. They’re vermin. They’re like rats, and maybe in a film where the emotional denoument is in the reconciliation of the human and the rat, treating criticism as an inferior species of culture deserves a little more inspection.

There’s a really nifty short film in the extras on the Ratatouille DVD called Your Friend The Rat which explains that the spread of the rat was parallel with then spread of humans. The two species thrive in the same habitats. The omnivorous rat flourishes on a human diet. In other words, we wouldn’t hate rats nearly so much if they weren’t so bloody similar to us. And maybe critics are the same, scooping up the crumbs and dirt of the “average piece of trash” and turning it into something good.

Criticism isn’t just what Ratatouille pretends it is – a hanger-on of the arts. It’s a craft of its own and it can be done well or poorly, but for most average pieces of trash, a good going-over by a strong critic in a fine fury is the best available fate. A railing Victorian bigot like Dr Cumming would have made nothing of any value at all, if he hadn’t given George Eliot ocassion to slam his sermons for their “smattering of science and learning.” “platitudes,” “bigoted narrowness” and “unctuous egoism.” The most interesting part of Big Brother every year is Charlie Brooker dismantling the show’s mechanics in Screen Burn. And, while a self-indulgent kicking is unwelcome, it’s not any more despicable than the sort of writing that piles mewling approval on top of success and pretends that championing the biggest and the boringest is a work of passion.

How Fiction Works

101-dalmations2For the last two years or so, the Paperhouse has been working its way through the works of Walt Disney under the alibi of the children. Getting to the urbane, jazz-styled whimsy of 101 Dalmatians was specially pleasurable. “But you have to read the book, too”, I started declaiming. “There’s this amazing bit where the humans go to have dinner with Cruella de Vil and everything’s green and red and her kitchen is described as being like a mouth. It’s brilliant.”

Here’s what Dodie Smith actually wrote and I actually read about 20 years ago:

“After dinner Mr and Mrs Dearly sat panting in the red marble drawing-room, where an enormous fire was now burning. Mr de Vil was panting quite a bit, too. Cruella, who was wearing a ruby satin dress with ropes of emeralds, got as close to the fire as she could.”

Three panting mouths, one red room – but the simile between the mouths and the room isn’t written, it was inferred by me. And even as just a faint suggestion, it was such a powerful idea that it stayed with me for decades and even turned into my favourite part of the novel. The mingling of elements in figurative language and the combination of authorial invention and readers imagination – the confidence that the reader will make the subtle jump – is part of what makes this paragraph spark and flash like Cruella’s cigarettes.

Paperhouse At The Picturehouse: Wall-e

(If you want to see the film unspoiled, I suggest you hold out on reading this until after you’ve been to the cinema.)

Pixar always open their films with a new short. There’s something delicious about the extra layer of anticipation: after the months of expectancy, the hours of wondering how they are going to top the gleam of Cars or the organic textures of Ratatouille, you sit down in your seat ready to to be dazzled by the new world of Wall-e – but first, there’s the funny physics-bending of Presto to get through. Presto is typical of Pixar’s confidence: they can create worlds with any rules they imagine, so they do. And the premise on which Presto builds its cartoon-violence comedy is the brilliantly disarming trick of a physical
universe which doesn’t match the visual one. If you’ve played Silent Hill 2 or Portal, then you’ll know the idea – but even if you recognise what’s going on, your dazzled brain will be delighted.

And then, after they’ve amused and astonished you, Wall-e begins, and is immediately like everything you know and nothing you’ve ever seen. Continue reading

Ghada Amer At The Brooklyn Museum

Those Disney princesses have got a lot to answer for. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Ariel have been icons of femininity to millions of girl children, convincing us that one day our prince would come, that you might as well stay in bed until he does, and that any body modification – even trading flippers for feet – is reasonable if it helps us get our man. I’m feeling this particularly keenly at the moment because my own daughter has recently developed a fixation on a Little Mermaid Barbie, and taken to carrying it around, caressing the doll’s hair and stroking its body (she’s two – if there is a singular moment at which body image issues begin, I think I’ve just seen it). So Ghada Amer‘s feminist agit-prop was particularly welcome when I saw it in the Brooklyn Museum Of Art in March this year. Continue reading