Life in The High-Rise, Do You Fancy It?


Last Saturday I went to the cinema and to watch High-Rise. I was very curious about this film, a) Tom Hiddleston is in it, b) it’s based on a novel by the British writer James Ballard and what I heard of him sounds fascinating.

I have never read anything by Ballard – I plan to grab The Drowned World some time soon – but I enjoyed the film a lot. It has that explosive mix of strange plot, music and visuals that it’s so hard to find in more mainstream movies. The soundtrack is very good – I loved this orchestra version of SOS by ABBA, and the cover that Portishead has done – and the story, even if unsettling, grabbed my attention since second one.

For those who don’t know, High-Rise is the story of an enormous residential building where people have everything they could ask for: swimming pool, gym, supermarket and even a school. This great achievement of modern life is also organised by social levels where the humble people occupy the lower floors and the rich ones the top. However, the apparent perfect status turns into chaos when there is a small power cut…

I was talking the other day with a PhD mate who is doing his thesis on Ballard and he told me that this writer was very influenced by psychology, specially by Freud, and that in this novel characters are supposed to be incarnations of the super-ego, the subconscious and so on. That’s a very interesting theory – and we were talking long about that – but, between us, that’s not what I was thinking about when I was watching the film.

In High-Rise everyone seems to have the perfect life: all of them have jobs in the city, all of them have cars, all of them have been able to afford a flat in the luxurious building and all of them have families and, sometimes, children.

Is not that what we all aim for?

I don’t know about you, but I always grew up thinking, ‘what do I want to do when I’m an adult?’ And that mean what sort of profitable job I was interested into. I went through school and high-school without questioning – not for a moment – that I’d be going to university too. I’m the second generation of university educated people in my family. My parents went and of course I was expect to do the same.

University was challenging in a way but boring too. As an extension of high-school I had to study theories but original thinking was not something we were asked to do. Now I find myself in the academia once again, although this PhD is the best thing I could be wishing for because it’s purely creative.

What should I do afterwards?

I hate working in an office and I hate the nine to five timetable. I’m not lazy, it’s just that I feel that it sucks my life (and creativity) out and I firmly believe there must be another way out. I don’t want to buy a car, I don’t want to buy an apartment, I don’t want to set a perfect family. Is that everything? I’m not surprised people at the High-Rise decided to throw Bachanals all day in the corridors because they were too sick of their perfect lifes. You can become a prisoner of your desires.

I used to believe – when I was 18 and thinking, hey, I’m an adult – that I would just get myself a job I liked and then I would write on the side. I know that works perfectly for some – it worked with the lovely J A White, author of The Thickety – but it doesn’t work for me. I need to be creating all the time. That’s what keeps me sane inside instead of drowning into depression, anguish and panic attacks. It may take me years to figure this out, but I can reinvent myself. I want to be like a modern minstrel going here and there exchanging stories for goods. Everyone likes to hear a good story.

Life in the High-Rise is not for me. I’d rather be a nomad.

‘Elk Tongue’ and The Revenant



“The main character, his name was Elk Tongue. I went to the director and said, ‘What parent in their right mind would name their kid Elk Tongue? It’s like naming your kid ‘dumb ass’ (…)”

Leonardo DiCabrio has earned his Oscar. Not only because he ate raw bison liver but he also learned two new languages for his role: Pawnee and Arikara – spoken by Native Americans in Oklahoma and Dakota.

This was something I liked a lot in The Revenant – apart from the beautiful landscapes and its intensity. I think the reason behind it is that Alejandro Iñárritu is its director. He’s not American, but Mexican, so he had to learn English first to be where he’s now – in one of the highest postions in Hollywood, I’d say.

Iñárritu is a multilingual director – yey, we’re an increasing number! He has made films both in Spanish – Amores Perros, Biutiful – and English – Birdman and Babel, a film that has much to do with languages and communication.

We’ve lots of languages in this film, including French and Hardy’s own personal dialect – seriously, I could barely understand his character, John Figtzerald.

In The Revenant   US is no man’s land, where invasors – French and English – figh their way, massacring the Native American’s tribes, who in turn attack back the best they can. In this not very welcoming place Hugh Glass – who apparently existed back in the time – stands out as a man who married a  Pawnee woman and is taking care of their son – although nothing of this seems to be historically accurated.

At the beginning he’s attacked my a bear protecting her two cubs – wonderful CGI, for a change. To me this violent attack was a metaphor of the North American’s invasion. Can be blame the bear that is trying to protect her offsprings? Native Americans were protrayed as the bad guys in so many US Westerns – I think it’s outrageous. At least Iñárritu is giving them a much decent role in his story.

Coming back to Hugh Glass, he’s a very literate man: he speaks Pawnee, and it’s this language precisely – and not his native English – the one that  brings him encouragement in his darkest moments – he imagines his wife talking to him. He also speaks Arikara which, arguibly, brings him his much desired revenge.

Alejandro Iñárritu took special care of the accuracy of Native American languages in the film. Here it is an interview made to one of his advisors, who explained to him why calling his main character ‘Elk Tongue’ was not the brightest idea.

So there you go. If you go to a foreign, dangerous land, bring with yourself a conversational phrase book. You never know when you have to scream for help or ask permision to share a raw bison recently hunted…

Have you watched The Revenant? Could you understand Tom Hardy?



Diving in a Dutch film: Nova Zembla.

Nova Zembla

So it was New Year’s eve and I was spending the night in the Netherlands with a Dutch family. We ate oliebollen – if you don’t know what it is you’re missing the greatest fried sweet after Spanish churros – and plaid sjoebak,  which helped me to release all the bad vibes from 2015. Then we had to wait until 12am to open the champaign and, naturally, watching a movie was the best idea. Because technology is brilliant – when it cooperates – we couldn’t quite work out how to put the English subtitles on. Finally I said I didn’t mind watching the film – Nova Zembla – in Dutch – even if I had just started studying the language.

So, did I enjoy it even if I missed 100% of the dialogues? Of course! Let’s not forget that cinema started as a silent art…

1. The plot. You don’t need dialogue to understand the plot. In most films – unless they are like Saraband – the characters movements and the change of setting tells us what’s going on in a clear way. For example, in Nova Zembla  there’s a scene in which the characters are being chased by a massive polar bear and, as everyone in the room, I was suffering for them – I am not a psycho!

2. The characters.  The human face is a great map of expressions and if the actors know how to do their job properly we get if they are happy, needy, angry… It’s also easy to see who is the good guy – if he’s clean and seems stupidly innocent – and the bad guy – dirty, a messy beard, giving suspicious looks over his shoulder… etc.

3. Landscape and photography. Nova Zembla  tells the story of a ship and her crew during the 16th century. The visual aspect of the film was impressive and I really enjoyed being trapped inside the ship’s gutters or wandering in the vast whiteness of the Pole North. Images are breathtaking on their own: when watching The Revenant I could barely understand Tom Hardy’s accent yet the film traumatised me all the same.

4.Chance to feel smart. When you’re starting with a new language you obviously haven’t acquired the necessary skills to understand a full lenght movie. Yet it’s so much fun trying to ‘tame’ your ear to the new sounds. And when you recognise small words you get all excited – it’s very rewarding.

5. Let’s explore. We’re so used to the American and perhaps English way of doing films that I think we forget there is a complete different cinema world out there. It’s so interesting watching what other countries do, how they tell stories, how they incorporate their own culture and history to their plots… Nova Zembla narrates a discovery trip, because Dutch people were intrepid sailors in the 16th century. We can also have an insight of the way of living, the way the percieved religion, love and morality… – for example, the wide neckline of the female protagonist might suggest that the Netherlands were in no way as puritanical at people in 16th’s Spain, for example.

So defenitely, if you love cinema and you’re also learning a new language, I would encourage you to start watching films from that country or culture as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid of getting lost without subtitles, because it can be great fun. Check out the trailer and see by yourself!

Do you watch movies in different languages? Have you been brave enough to watch them without subtitles?



About Carol and spelling your name



I went to watch Carol last December in York. I had great expectations with this movie and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightlest.

The price of Salt – the novel in which the film is based –  is way more than a classic lesbian story to me. When I found myself in love with another woman I was really lost. I had so many questions, so many emotions, fears and doubts boiling inside. Then I came to read this book and it reafirmed what I was feeling. To me, it was also important that it was written by one of my literary idols, Patricia Highsmith. Her stories are dark and twisted, like The Talented Mister Ripley – many of you will know at least the film adaptation. The price of Salt is not spooky but still powerful, one of these novels I cannot forget.

The is told from Therese’s point of view. She’s a young woman working in a shopping Center at Christmas time, where she meets  Carol, who is looking for a toy for her daughter. Carol is definitely the protagonist of both the novel and the film – Cate Blanchett is simply superb, anyone would fall in love with her. However, Carol herself cannot resist Therese’s mysterious aura.


There is a scene in which Carol asks Therese about the strange spelling of her name – while both are flirting. ‘Therese’ has, for sure, the resonance from distant lands and that is because her parents are from Czech Republic. Can language or spelling make someone even more attractive? I wish so, as I always have to spell my name wherever I go these days.

Therese is not a common girl. She has a strong, non-apologetic personality, she’s one of these people who knows what she wants and simply goes there and takes it, no matter the price. I admire people like her because it’s so easy to sucumb to ease and laziness in life.

We do so many things a day – we wake up, we go to work or study, we switch on thousand devices, we spend money… – but do we do what we really want to do? No, because it’s complicated. There are so many things that provide instant relief – checking  emails, social media, or buying a sweet – that we have forgotten that the most important things are those difficult to get. We must endure suffering before embracing happiness, it’s always a cycle – I like to think this when things are not going that well.

Therese falls in love and she dares to do so – it is so challenging to open oneself to a stranger, to offer all that we are in exchange of nothing. She ends an unsatisfying relationship with her boyfriend – you also have to be strong to get rid of people who waste your energy instead of enriching it.  And she leaves her part-time job to pursue her dream of being a set designer – or photograph in the movie.

Therese comes a foreign background. I wonder why Patricia Highsmith did this. Perhaps because she knew that when you are from another country you feel like dancing between two worlds: the here and there. Languages and rites are separated and things don’t feel as they should sometimes. You know that no matter how hard you try, you’d never feel what’s to ‘fit in’.

That’s the same I felt when I started writing in English. I know I’m never going to write as well as a native, so I may as well have fun and do it shamelessly and just for the sake of it.

Therese sees in Carol’s love and – spoiler here – rejection a way of finding her own freedom. When you had it all and then lose it all and you discover you are still alive, then I guess everything seems simpler. Since the first second we stepped on this life we walked towards our own end – unavoidably. We should remember that more often to keep trying new things, meeting new people, travelling to distant places.

And those like Therese who are dancing between worlds… sometimes it is a bit sad when you cannot feel completely connected anywhere. But then, I always tell myself, because we are strange, strange things will happen to us. And I like that adjective, beacause strange means not boring. And boring… that’s death in life.

Die Hard and the Germans



Last week Alan Rickman left us – he was one of my favourite actors ever. Because yes, I’m  the kind of people who prefer a charismatic villain than the always boring good guys. That is why I loved him as a Snape in the Harry Potter films, for example or as the perverted Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd. Last Friday I watched his first debut movie, which turned out to be the first of another famous saga, Die Hard.


Die Hard is an action film and not something I would have choose to watch before, to be honest. Although I have to say that despite its many clichés, I enjoyed it, specially because in the old days the action scenes were really filmed – no computers but flesh and hard floors. For example, poor Alan Rickman was really thrown no less than 20 meters down at the end of the film – which explains why his horror face seems so believable.

I’m sure many of you are familiarised with the plot, that narrates the adventures of John McLean, a NY cop that finds himself locked up in a luxurious skycraper taken by a band of thieves. We have here a young Bruce Willis.

Does his character’s surname – McLean – suggest some Scottish heritage?

The skycraper’s owner is no other than one Mr Takagi – he has the same surname than one of Japanese teachers. When I first saw the character I thought he would be one of the evil ones. Japan was at war with US and they paid for that as in most of US’ movies Japanese guys are crazy assholes – sorry for the word. Kill Bill could be an example.

But no, in Die Hard it gets clear from the very beginning that Mr Takagi is a powerless victim. His whole story is narrated in a few lines – child of Japanese immigrants in US that made himself through scholarships in different Californian universities. So he’s more American than Japanese in the end…

Then the thieves appear. An attractive Alan Rickman followed by a tribe of –mostly– super tall, blond, long-haired men. At the beginning I thought they were Russian. In American movies the bad guys are Japanese… or Russian… or Spaniards. However, when they started speaking I discovered they were… Germans. No less.

Now, I have to thank the scripwriter of this movie, who at least took the bothers to make his characters to speak real German – which always adds some veracity to the screen. They argue with each other in this language, and it’s wonderful to hear Alan Rickman giving them orders in German with his sharp voice. I say I feel grateful because – sadly – in many US movies they don’t really care about other languages apart from English. In The Reader, an adaptation of a novel that is set in Germany, there is one scene that struck me: the main character reading from an English book. Not that German people cannot read English – not at all, I’m jealous of all my German friends for their perfect English accents – but it was obvious that in that particular story at that particular moment the chacter should have been reading a book in his mother tongue. Not mentioning US films set in Ancient Greece where you can see their old manuscripts… in English as well. It completely blows up the great lie that cinema is.

Now, I was wondering, why are the thieves/criminals/terrorists in US movies always Asian or European? Why US does not have its own thieves – as we all have? Why do they feel this urgency of ‘importing’ the bad guys into his movies?

As a curiosity, in the German version of Die Hard the thieves are not German – of course not – but members of the IRA. Don’t you think that’s wonderful? Enemies always come from far, far away, so we don’t feel specially sad when Bruce Willis breaks their necks or throws them through the window of the 38th floor.

But the best thing is that the most German person in the movie is indeed… our Bruce Willis. Born in Germany from a German mother.

That’s how he defeated the super evil Hans Gruber/Alan Rickman?





Droog’s language in A Clockwork Orange


‘What’s going to be then, eh?’

There was me, tht is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus pesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skhorry these days and everybody were quick to forget, newspapaers not being read much neither.

Some of you will recognise these opening sentences – Stanley Kubric made them inmortal, although they were first written in a novella by Arthur Burges, A Clockwork Orange.

Burges wanted his teenage narrator to speak like real teenagers do. I’m sure you will remember that your rebel years came with a fancy and special way to communicate. The abbreviations we used to write to each other texts, emails, chats… At the time I thought it was the coolest thing, and they were million of them, so  you ended up with this line that didn’t look like Spanish or English any more, and that was the best thing of all. Nowadays, of course, I stopped using them because I care about language. I’m a writer.

Why was Burges so interested in language? Well, because he had to convince his readers that  A Clockwork Orange is set in the future. World-building is the key to get  readers’ attention… But, how to make a city from the future believable? You describe the landscape, the buildings… but with globalisation is getting quite challenging. Think about cities you know, are not they almost the same? Cities copy things from one another – Tokyo has an Eiffel Tower, Madrid an Egiptian Temple… – and are often built in a similar way and with similar spaces. How can you know you are in a foreign city?

That’s easy, Close your eyes and open your ears.

Language. Cities might look the same, but as soon as we see different people speaking in different languages we know we are in another country.

Burges knew that language was an indispensable feature of his futuristic world. He could have copied the way teenagers talked around him, but that would have outdated in a few years – or even months. And believe me, you don’t want to put anything that goes off quickly in a novella. Literature is all about making things that matter last, not the opposite. So he decided to invent his own dialect based in Russian – a language non-related to English and he called  it Nadsat. Why Russian? Burges had gone on holidays to the URSS and perhaps he decided to give further use to his Russian-English dictionary…

It’s true that for the first few pages I was completely lost because of this particular vocabulary. But I already knew the majority of the terms by  heart when I finished. Sometimes it’s by context, other by repetition. The system Burges invented to insert these weird terms into his character’s speech is good, because the novella is still a classic.

Inventing a complet new language? That’s way more difficult, although it has already been done, you can ask Tolkien about it…

Have you read A Clockwork Orange? Or watched the film? Did you ever wanted to create your own language for your character?

‘In a Pig’s Ear, Sweet Pie!’ – why Idiolects are great fun.


‘You look fantastic!’ she said when she finished. ‘I could eat you!’

And then: ‘I’m going to miss you, Pat Puss, you know! So much.’

‘I love you, Charlie. I’ll write every day, I promise.’

‘Kiss me! Even if I’m Irvin’s and always be forever, I still want you to kiss me!’

Yummy breasts of all time as little tongue goes travelling down belly-town! And other secret places!
Such squelch and sweat the world has never seen! God! – Why couldest not invent a sweeter way to melt and merge? Dickies which might squirt Chanel, or weenies which secrete rosewater?

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCAbe

This is probably my favourite quote from Breakfast on Pluto, a book I read a few weeks ago. I haven’t watched the film adaptation yet – although I find Cillian Murphy very attractive as a woman, I’ve to say. I’ve read the book is more explicit than the movie so I don’t think I’m going to enjoy the movie that much. Specially because what I’ve loved most in this book is Pussy’s nerve, if you take that from the story, what else is left?

In this blog I’ve talked a lot about different languages, but what about idiolects? An idiolect is a way of speaking associated with an individual. Because yes, we all have our own way to speak. You might not have realised that, but if you’re a writer then you probably know how challenging – and fun, and frustrating – is to give your character a voice. That’s the idiolect. And it’s unique, and sometimes recreating it on the page might be as difficult as learning a foreign language.

Pussy Braden was born as an orphan – he might have been the son of a Catholic priest and his teenager servant – and grew up in the fictional city of Tyreelin. He has always known he’s a woman and also that he wants to find her mother – wherever she is, or whoever she might be.

Horrible things happen to our poor Pussy – the IRA and the Catholicism happen to him, I must say – but she narrates everything with a delicious insolence. Sometimes she seems too optimistic, other times her happiness feels like fresh make-up covering a ninety-year-old face. It’s all pure comedy, because the sadness is there, and the loneliness, they never left.

Her way of speaking is very peculiar. In this quote she explains how she was in the newspaper after being in a disco where the IRA put a bomb – and now the police thinks she’s a member of the IRA as well just because she’s Irish.

To this day I regret that I didn’t keep the Daily Mirror and the Sun, for I didn’t look at all bad either! (…) I’d see the bold black type: ‘Sweet Smile of a Killer!’, which was hilarious, it really was, particularly with the glazy look I had in my eyes and my clothes ripped to shreds. Especiallt as I say, my Christian Diors! Which they had arrows pointing to so you could see my hairy legs (I’m afraid I hadn’t bothered to shave them that night!)

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCAbe

Exclamations: She doesn’t spare these. She uses them as some people use salt or sugar on everything. This made – to me – her language artificially happy. Like if she pretended to narrate her story all excited, bouncing up and down with bright eyes.

Dashes and brakets: Those are also used a lot to allow Pussy digression. These are mostly anecdotes and funny impressions that contribute to the comedy in the narrative.

Dialogues: Pussy tells us at the beginning she’s writing her story as a sort of therapy for her psychiatrist, who is encouraging her as he seems to think she’s a good writer. Yet she introduces dialogues now and then. As a writer, I always struggle with this. Is it realistically enough? When I write my diary I just ramble, and I never quote what other people have said to me – I think. But my diary is not something readers would find interesting and a book has to be of some interest. So in this case I think we can ‘forgive’ Pussy. The dialogues are also embedded inside the text instead of being separated in different paragraphs, which made them look more casual and part of Pussy’s own voice.

Chapters’ titles: I absolutely loved the fact that each chapter had its own funny titlel. Pussy’s personality shines through these. Some of the best ones:

  • Hysterical Jokes and Greeting Visitors in a Skyblue Negligee!
  • In a Pig’s Ear, Sweet Pie!
  • Vicky likes Salmon!!

Vignettes: The story is narrated in very short chapters – vignettes – which correspond to a single scene. I found the same in another Irish book – Reading in the Dark – and wondered if it might be considered a feature in Irish prose. I’ve to say I like books with short chapters. It makes me feel I read quicker and everything flows more pleasant. I’m fan of the old ‘lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno’ which basically means that if something is good and short is better. At least, as a writer, I like to keep my things ‘short’ – so no 100000 pages novels for me, thanks.

What is real?: The fictional ‘vignettes’ were written by Pussy as a therapy. But along with these there are also pages that preceed and also act as an interlude for these. There Pussy’s voice is the same – slightly more contended, perhaps? – but presumably narrates the real current events that are happening in her life. However, these ‘real’ interludes stop appearing when Pussy tells us how she set fire to the church in Tyreelin and the story finishes in vignettes. I think this subtle game is very interesting as it makes the character more real and less of a caricature  – she might have been ended up by being so if we only had the vignettes. Mixing formats, also, is something I find very original and it also allows the writer to play with different registers and times.

The Irish narrator: Is there such a thing? Apparently what defines ‘the Irish narrator’ is his/her needless eloquence… At least that’s what my supervisor, Eoghan Walls, told me. Pussy is definitely needless eloquent and also quite strident. Yet instead of disliking him I grew fond of him chapter by chapter.

The IRA and the church: These are two things that make Pussy’s life worse. The IRA is always around, killing, and they are violent against the British but also to those Irish who they think disloyal. This is not a sympathetic portrairt. The church, on the other hand, also symbolises Pussy’s struggles. First because he might have been orphaned because he was born from a Catholic priest. Second, because being a transexual woman doesn’t set well with Catholicism anyways. Abortion is also discussed in the book as something that needs to be more accesible for Irish women. Sadly, Pussy knows that he’s orphan also because his mother never wanted him thus she abandoned him. And that feeling of neglect is his curse in life.

Secondary characters: Pussy is telling us her life in first person, and her voice is so intense that there’s little room for more characters. I don’t think the reader minds this, because she’s very engaging. The other characters are just secondary, mere shadows appearing now and then, although she manages to describe them very well and offer the reader a glimpse of their personality – like her childhood friends, Irwin and Charlie. Although, considering that Pussy is an unreliable narrator, you always wonder until what point her perception can be – or not – accurate.

I want to finish with the end of the book, in which Pussy expresses her most impossible wish – to become a mother. I found it weirdly tender.

(…) to wake up in the hospital with my family all around me, exhausted after my ordeal maybe, but with a bloom like roses in my cheeks, as I stroke his soft and tender head, my little baby, watching them as they beam with pride, in their eyes perhaps a tear or two – who cares! – hardly able to speak as they wipe it away and say: ‘He’s ours.’

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCAbe

‘Have you read it? Have you ever attempted to create an idiolect for your characters?