I took a trip to nearby Ryde a couple of weeks ago to explore the big bookshop there, and spent a good hour browsing all the rooms and nooks (and being plunged into darkness at one point when the electricians didn't see me hiding in a corner.) I'm sure I've written about Ryde bookshop before. The front part houses the new books, and then you go through a door to the labyrinth behind: three stories of second-hand books: genre fiction and travel at the back, general fiction lining the halls and stairways, and several rooms for children's books and non-fiction of every genre imaginable. I always feel that you can get lost in "L-Space" in a shop like that, take a wrong turning and you might end up in another bookshop in another town. After much deliberation, I bought A Place Called Winter new, and a couple of science fiction novels.
On the way back to the bus stop, I wandered into a charity shop where I found myself confronted with another name from my childhood: my first celebrity crush, Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, with whom I was embarrassingly besotted during my early teens (don't judge me!) Although I hadn't thought of him for years, it still came as a shock in the autumn of 2009 when Stephen died at the age of just 33. (You might remember that marking another landmark in the "how low can they go" history of the rag known as the Daily Mail when they published a really hateful article insinuating that instead of suffering the hitherto unknown heart condition diagnosed by the coronors, Stephen basically Died Of Gay.) Anyway, he was writing a children's book at the time - I read somewhere that he was very much against the use of ghostwriters, although the book was ultimately finished off for him from his notes and probably edited a lot - and it was this book, The Tree of Seasons, which I found in the Cancer Research shop on a 2 for £1 deal.
The Tree of Seasons is a rather charming fairy tale, evoking the feeling of endless summer found in Enid Blyton, Narnia, The Hounds of the Morrigan and others. Three siblings, Josh, Michael and Beth Lotts, go exploring in the forbidden woods behind their great-aunt's house, and find within a tree a portal to four magical kingdoms, each controlling a season of the year. But all is not as it should be; the ruler of the autumn kingdom has been overthrown by an evil witch whose influence is spreading out into the world beyond. It is up to the Lotts children to stop her. The plot is a fairly conventional story of the genre, a McGuffin-hunt, with good and evil characters, peril and unlikely friendship. But the world-building is immersive, atmospheric and poetic, the book a joyful celebration of nature.
On the subject of famous people I like dying, 2015 was a notorious year, with the loss of Leonard Nimoy, Sir Terry Pratchett, Sir Christopher Lee and the actor who played "Gilbert Blythe," Jonathan Crombie. We're only at the end of January but already 2016 is almost matching last year, adding David Bowie and Alan Rickman to that list within about three days of each other, and yesterday I woke up to the news of TV and radio personality Terry Wogan's death as well, all three from cancer. My local radio station has been playing even more Bowie songs than usual, and of course that week I rewatched one of my favourite films from my teens, Labyrinth. It was harder to choose just one of Rickman's films to remember him by: Harry Potter or Robin Hood? Die Hard or Sense and Sensibility? But I went with Galaxy Quest, the affectionate Star Trek spoof described by George Takei as "a chillingly realistic documentary," in which a once-great sci-fi cast, who relive (or endlessly suffer through) their glory days on the convention circuit, get mistaken for real-life space heroes by a race of aliens in desperate need of help. Rickman's performance as the self-loathing thespian (who is never without his alien prosthetic headgear) is a thing of beauty, the film is gloriously quotable, poking fun at all that is ridiculous about the likes of Star Trek, while also celebrating what has made it endure for half a century. As an honorary entry in the Trek canon, I'd rank it second only to The Wrath of Khan (tied with The One With The Whales.)
After Ellie emailed me to tell me she'd bought and watched one of my more recent favourite films, Pride, I got so excited about her discovering it for the first time that I needed to rewatch it again. And again (twice in two nights.) I could quite easily reach the end and go straight back to the beginning yet again, if I didn't stop myself. It's quite rare for me to find a film so good I don't want it to end; no matter how good a movie might be, normally once it's passed the 90 minute mark I tend to find my attention wandering a little until the climax. Pride is one of those British comedies about unlikely people achieving big things against all the odds, like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. It's set during the miners' strike of 1984-1985, and based on true events, when a group of gay men and women from London pledge their support for a Welsh mining community. Strong friendships are built between these two very different groups of people. The script is spot-on, uplifting, with a ready wit, and acted by a stellar cast of big names, such as Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine and relative newcomers like Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay and Faye Marsay. It is an absolute joy to spend a couple of hours in the company of these warm-hearted characters.* We see them grow and change as we become acquainted with them, from activist Mark Ashton, to still-closeted young Joe ("Bromley") to Bill Nighy's character Cliff, on first appearances a rather uncomfortable, stern gentleman but who, we come to discover, has a poetic soul, a deep abiding passion for the coal that is at the heart of his homeland, and secrets he's held for decades. Imelda Staunton as matriarch Hefina is magnificent (she must surely banish any thoughts of Professor Umbridge in this role.) Andrew Scott, who you might know as the gleefully evil Moriarty from the BBC's Sherlock, shows a contrasting subtlety in his portrayal of gentle bookseller Gethin, while Dominic West plays Gethin's partner Jonathan, a flamboyant but not cliched actor with secret battles of his own. The film ends with captions of "What happened next," a bittersweet mixture of sadness and triumph, and one simple sentence about Jonathan is particularly sweet.
Pride was an instant addition to my top films of all time; it is perhaps as close as you can get to the perfect film. It tackles difficult subjects with an illusion of ease, is by turns moving, inspiring, and hilarious. You'll laugh, you'll cry tears of sadness but more of joy and mirth. The ultimate feel-good film. Oh dear, I might have to go and watch it again.
*because, although many are based on real people, some of whom were interviewed in the extras and extraordinarily well cast, by nature of being written into a drama, they are characters nonetheless.)