The end of the world as we know it – Mary Shelley and The Last Man

Writers love an apocalypse, at least in theory. We’re fascinated with the means of our own destruction; a glance at TV listings and bookshelves reveals a multitude of stories about our possible end, whether by meteors or plagues or super-volcanoes.1 It’s as if by anticipating the worst possible scenario, we hope to fend-off that particular means of oblivion.

Mary Shelley is best remembered for Frankenstein’s monster, but her fourth novel, The Last Man, is the book that really lays bare her soul. Published in 1826, it has never been more timely, set in our 21st century and dealing with religious strife, civil wars, the destabilisation of world economies plus a pandemic that wipes-out the human race. Eerily reminiscent of our current situation, one of the most powerful and chilling images in the novel shows the last man on earth wandering the deserted streets of Rome, embracing the marble statues for companionship – the ultimate in social distancing.

It’s a novel of intense contradictions; starkly dramatising war, politics, plague and death, but also a desperately personal description of love, loss and survival in the face of annihilation. And while it has been stealthily influential, originating the sub-genre of apocalyptic novels, it remains less well-known than it deserves. Within this story, as with Frankenstein, each generation can discover their own predictions, find their own parallels; whether a parable for the ecology movement in the 1970s, or the spread of AIDS in the 1980s, or indeed today for the new global pandemic. There’s a uncanny coincidence in the nature of her apocalypse; a plague from the East. Her inspiration may have been a wave of cholera that was steadily advancing towards Europe following an outbreak in Bengal in 1817 – ironically, one of its last London victims, six years after she published the book, would be her own half-brother William.

Considering that the Shelleys and their circle had aimed to live in advance of the times, the social attitudes Mary describes in the 21st Century future-world of The Last Man are little changed from her day. But then, she wasn’t planning to write a novel pressing for political change, or a dire prophetic warning, though it is both; instead it is an outpouring of pure emotion, an extended and powerful metaphor for bereavement. At the dark heart of the story, the plague is simply a means of emptying the world; only by wiping-out the whole human race can she fully express the magnitude of her heartbreak.

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell – National Portrait Gallery

The fabric of her life was tightly woven with loss, starting with her mother’s death just weeks after Mary’s birth. This tragedy became part of the myth which defined her; turbulent weather and a blazing comet in the night sky in the weeks before Mary’s birth were seen as a sign of hope by her expectant parents. In later life, Mary came to doubt this optimism, always aware she’d indirectly caused her mother’s death. By 1822, aged just 25, Mary had endured repeated miscarriages, the loss of three beloved children and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as the suicides of Shelley’s first wife and Mary’s own half-sister. It’s hardly surprising that Mary’s thoughts turned frequently towards oblivion. “Why am I doomed to live on seeing all expire before me?” 2 she wrote, on hearing of her friend Byron’s death in 1824. To Mary, each bereavement felt unbearable, but the cumulative weight rendered her almost helpless.

The Last Man was also a way to explore feelings she dared not admit; her character Perdita (meaning ‘lost’), formerly a loving mother, commits suicide after the death of her husband, with no regrets for abandoning her children – a macabre wish-fulfilment for Mary. Her love for her last remaining child had seemed an oddly ambiguous blessing after her husband’s death: “You are the only chain that links me to time; but for you I should be free.” 3 Mary’s hero in The Last Man, Lionel Verney, expresses his desire to “dash myself from some precipice and so close my eyes forever on the sad end of the world,” but eventually decides against suicide, “for the true fortitude was to endure.” 4 Mary eventually found her own reasons to live; her writing, promoting her dead husband’s work and raising their last surviving child.

While creation stories are richly detailed and common to almost all mythologies, the end of the world is more problematic. It’s written into cultures and lore from the Norse Ragnarök to the Kali Yuga cycle of Hinduism, and the apocalypse forms part of Christian belief, from Noah’s Flood to the “pestilence that creeps by darkness” of Psalm 91 and the end-times ecstasy of Revelations. The Last Man was not a wholly innovative theme, or even an original title, but in the politically turbulent years of the early nineteenth century, the idea took on a sudden relevance and urgency. In 1816, apocalyptically gloomy weather conditions following a volcanic eruption led to the ‘Year Without a Summer’, during which Mary created Frankenstein, and Byron’s poem Darkness imagined the end of all life on earth; “the world was void… treeless, manless, lifeless… a lump of death.” 5

Mary’s novel, coming at the tail-end of a sequence of ‘last man’ poems, wasn’t well-received, encountering savage and misogynistic reviews. One reviewer enquired snidely why she did not write instead “The Last Woman? She would have known better how to paint her distress at having no-one to talk to.” 6 The reviewer also missed a vital point that her everyman hero’s survival instead of the more ‘celebrity’ characters mirrors Mary outliving her more famous male peers. The same unperceptive reviewer also criticised her “display of morbid feelings which could not exist,” 7 though the heightened emotions are the novel’s strongest element, torn from Mary’s own experience of grief.

The real horror of bereavement is its seeming permanence, its irreversibility, and while Christianity offers reassurance via resurrection, faith may not have consoled Mary after marriage to the ‘atheist’ Shelley. Mary was one of the first writers to portray an apocalypse completely outside God’s control, where neither science nor organised religion offer any defence. Her scientist is intellectually fascinated by the plague, but oblivious to the human cost until his own family dies, while Christianity becomes corrupted by a fanatic who takes advantage of the terror for his own ends.

The difficulty with wiping-out humanity is that it is almost unimaginable; Mary Shelley’s was the first novel to fully fictionalise this and her vision still feels bold – it’s very rare, even in the most recent end-times explorations, for any ‘last man’ to be truly alone. A recent movie claimed to bring the book up to date but is nothing like the original story; following a man-made smallpox epidemic, its hero ‘becomes the strongest man alive and begins to gun down the cannibalistic survivors.’ Similarly-themed movies including I am Legend, The Omega Man and even The Last Man on Earth have also been reluctant to make their heroes entirely solitary, portraying (inevitably) macho human survivors battling zombies or vampires. 8

Mary Shelley isn’t interested in the technology that preoccupies most sci-fi adventures, though her characters do travel long-distance by hot-air balloon, a delicious first step towards the Steampunk genre. Reviewers noted that her future world seemed little different from her own time, calling it “an elaborate piece of gloomy folly” 9 while expressing outrage at the ‘unfeminine’ strength of her perceptive criticisms of politics, warfare and destruction. But in our age of global terrorism, it seems far-sighted that nearly 200 years ago, she rightly predicted the historical strife between Christian and Muslim would not be settled in her century.

More recent ‘end-days’ stories have followed Mary’s lead in exploring the biggest themes and concerns of their day – an apocalypse offers a chance to start afresh while commenting on the evils of contemporary society. Stephen King’s compelling classic The Stand offers a creepy re-enactment of biblical themes of good versus evil following an influenza pandemic. Z for Zachariah, a 1975 children’s story, offers a Cold-War vision of the earth as a nuclear wasteland; as Adam was the first man, so Zachariah is the last man, his plans for re-populating the earth in his own image scuppered by the courageous last girl. The graphic novel series Y-The Last Man offers both a reflection of male anxiety in a progressively feminised society and a sort of twisted wish-fulfilment; when a mysterious virus targets only men, the hero Yorick and his pet monkey become the last male mammals, fought over by increasingly Amazonian women.

The end of the world is also used for exploring technological and environmental fears. For Stephen King (again) in Cell, mobile phone technology disables and brutalises humanity; in the Terminator films, our artificially intelligent robotic machines turn against us, while in M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Happening, nature itself rebels and causes man to self-destruct. Cormac McCarthy’s allegorical The Road comes closest to the horror and lyricism of Mary Shelley’s vision, showing little interest in the method by which Earth becomes depopulated and brutalised, focusing instead on the relationship of a father and son as they struggle to survive.

One thing Mary could not have predicted was that her creations would not only survive her death but become more culturally influential than those of her famous husband. Her writing was shrouded in obscurity during her lifetime – Frankenstein was published anonymously and initially assumed to be Shelley’s work, and her novels after his death were published as ‘By the Author of Frankenstein’ because Shelley’s scandalised father threatened to disinherit her son every time she used the Shelley name in print.

Rome, March 2020. (REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane)

Mary Shelley’s particular genius was to take the personal fears and tragedies of her life and transmute them into stories that still stir us and feel relevant two hundred years later. Although its apocalyptic theme has been influential, The Last Man is essentially an extended metaphor for Mary’s own loss and grief, just as Frankenstein isn’t just a horror story, but a powerful allegory for her anxieties about procreation, childbirth and scientific experimentation. She made the link explicitly: “The Last Man! Yes, I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings… myself as the last relic of a beloved race…” 10 The process of fiction was a way of rationalising and recording Mary’s own tragedies, an age-old process of appeasement that all story-tellers recognise; “When death rumbles around wantonly, we tell a story to make sense of it. And when no deadly disease is rampant, we create our own horror stories… we need this story of risk.” 11

There’s another reason why the theme makes us subliminally uncomfortable – we cannot imagine ‘last-ness’, because the very fact we’re able to read the book means its hero cannot be the ‘last’. Mary neatly sidesteps this problem with an introduction where she (in the 19th Century) discovers an ancient prophecy that foretells the 21st Century story – though this adds another layer of uneasiness to the text. It’s deliberately enigmatic, as well as a clever novelistic device; we get a warning of what might happen, but it also offers the possibility that our future is not set in stone and we may still be able to change our path.

Disinfection taking place in Venice (IPA/Backgrid)

And so she ends the novel on a very faint note of hope – just as our pandemic has led to smog-free skies and clear water in the canals of Venice, she writes of the natural beauty of the earth thriving after the death of human-kind. And despite the horrors suffered by her last man, he is still wistfully certain he will find a mate; “could I visit the whole extent of earth, I should find in some part of the wide extent a survivor.” 12 Despite every misfortune life had thrown at her, Mary Shelley would not stop defying fate with the strength of her human spirit. The creative power of her imagination, of our collective imaginations, must always triumph over the urge to oblivion.

1 A concern Mary Shelley would have recognised, for while she was in Italy during 1819, Mount Etna had one of its periodic eruptions, and she also toured the recently uncovered ruins of Pompeii. In another modern parallel, while Mary was writing this novel England was experiencing a major banking crisis, causing the bankruptcy of her financially precarious father.
2 Mary Shelley’s journal – 15th May 1824
3 Mary Shelley’s Journal – 5th October 1823
4 The Last Man – p219 (all page references for TLM are from the Wordsworth Classics Edition)
5 George Gordon, Lord Byron 1788 –1824
6 & 7 Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres – 18th February 1826 (No. 474 / p102-3)
8 The vampires are a foe that Mary’s admirer John Polidori would have appreciated – at the famous house party in 1818 that produced Frankenstein, he (with Byron’s prompting), penned a fragmentary tale ‘Vampyr’, one of the first vampire stories in English.
9 London Magazine – March 1826 p422.
10 From Mary Shelley’s journal – 14th May 1824.
11 From Dread – the history of epidemics – Philip Alcabes (2009)
12 The Last Man – p373

Fifty shades of Disney

If your tweenage daughters are going to idolise a female celebrity, I guess it’s better for them to adore Emma Watson than emulate Miley Cyrus or the Jenner/Kardashian clan. My birthday treat last weekend was to take the girls to see Beauty and the Beast, the new live action version of the 1991 Disney classic. The girls were desperate to watch it (although they’ve never seen the original cartoon) purely because of the star power of Emma Watson – they wanted to see Harry Potter‘s Hermione all grown up.

I also have a soft spot for Emma Watson; partly because my eldest daughter is a mini-Hermione, partly because Watson took time out of acting to study English Literature at my old Alma Mater, Worcester College, but mainly because in a world of shallowness and frivolity, she does at least try to bring something more thoughtful to her roles. She has a genuine commitment to gender equality, literacy and eco-friendly fashion, and though undeniably beautiful, seems ‘girl next door’ rather than overtly sexualised. The film itself was preceded by media hoopla about its positive feminist message and modernity – Belle is not your usual Disney princess, ran the publicity, because she reads books!

Well, yeah, not so much. Okay, this Belle isn’t permanently trussed into a boob-enhancing corset, but she still doesn’t get to wear the trousers. According to an interview in Vanity Fair magazine, “Watson worked with the costume designer… to incorporate pockets in her costume that are kind of like a tool belt,” and insisted that for horse riding scenes, Belle was given bloomers and riding boots, rather than ballet slippers. Hmm. Then there’s the implication that Belle has career aspirations – again according to that rather breathless Vanity Fair interview: “In the original Disney movie, Belle is an assistant to her inventor father, but here she’s a creator in her own right, developing a modern washing machine that allows her to sit and read.”  They seem to have missed the subtle irony there… this Belle may be a brainy bookworm who doesn’t want to marry handsome/loathsome Gaston or be a slave to housework, but common-sense and a penchant for practical footwear do not make her an icon for women’s rights.

Emma Watson may have taken feminist writer Gloria Steinem to the film premiere, and gained her stamp of approval – but this Beauty and the Beast is not even the most ‘female-empowering’ Disney/Pixar production. Brave (2012) is all about Merida establishing a better relationship with her mother after refusing to be married off to dozy adolescent suitors who can’t shoot arrows as well as she can.  The original draft for Frozen (2013) portrayed Elsa as an evil ice queen with an army of snow monsters – much less emotionally satisfying than the final version, in which Elsa is a scared and isolated teenager saved by the redemptive love of her pesky, perky little sister Anna. And while Anna is so desperate for romance she gets hoodwinked by social-climbing Prince Hans, Elsa seems quite content to wield her freezing powers and rule her kingdom without any male assistance (although she’s still, y’know, a proper girl, because she wears the bling-iest dresses).


The origins and ‘rules’ of the Bechdel test – from ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’

Cartoons are more likely to pass the famous Bechdel test for feminism (see right) than most mainstream adult films, though I’d expand the Bechdel test to include the proviso that the conversations the female characters have shouldn’t revolve around food, sex, fashion or childcare arrangements. Belle, continually evading villainous Gaston or running off to save the Beast and/or her father, only has plot lines and conversations that revolve around the male characters and so fails the Bechdel test pretty spectacularly. Does it matter? I’m probably over-analysing, but when you have children, you become hyper-sensitive to the way the world shows them how things are and how things should be. If you’d ever heard your tiny daughter sobbing after someone told her she couldn’t be a princess because she wears glasses, then you’d know that yes, these things matter.

Tests have also been proposed for films to see if they can be similarly inclusive for other under-represented groups, by including BAME characters who talk to each other without mentioning their race and LGBTQ characters who are not solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation. Beauty and the Beast kind-of scores on this one, with plenty of BAME actors and a much heralded ‘first gay Disney character’. Mind you, despite the hissy-fits thrown by authorities in Russia, Malaysia and Alabama, it would be hard for even the most conservative of viewers to object to ‘mixed marriages’ when the actors spend most of the film transformed into a wardrobe and a harpsichord, a flamboyant candlestick and a coquettish feather duster, and the ‘big gay reveal’ is limited to a split second at the very end of the film.

beastThe area where this fails most spectacularly as a ‘girl power’ film though, is the dark central heart of the story. Some critics have accused Belle of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological condition where kidnappers fall in love with their captors. Apparently the original tale was written (around 1740) to prepare young French girls for the idea of arranged marriage, being ‘sold’ by their fathers to life with a man they had never met. And although Watson’s Belle willingly offers herself as a hostage to protect her poorly father, that essential sense of powerlessness remains.

Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 19.57.28Separated from her home and her father, locked in a tower, shouted and growled at, Emma Watson’s Belle only starts to soften towards the demonic Beast who holds her hostage when she learns about his sad childhood and he shows her his gigantically well-endowed… library.  Aww, he’s a just damaged little boy who has lots of books and can quote Shakespeare, which makes his appalling behaviour… somehow okay? Watching in the dark cinema, surrounded by excited small children, I gave a little shudder – it was suddenly, scarily reminiscent of that other supposedly ‘liberating’ modern fable, Fifty Shades of Grey. Like Christian Grey, the Beast is damaged by his parents, unable to express normal emotions, is controlling and self-centred, never apologises, but is, conveniently, filthy rich… As the internet meme goes, if Christian Grey lived on a trailer park, he’d just be a pervert. If this beast didn’t live in an enchanted castle, he’d just be a monster.

Still, I’m not sure how Beauty and the Beast could ever be an inspiringly feminist tale, unless they make a version where Belle punches the Beast on the snout in the very first scene, shows her hapless father how to make his own damn washing-machine, and then runs off to head-up a Fortune 500 company for the rest of the film.  Maybe we need to accept the baby-steps Disney is taking towards inclusion; a multi-ethnic fairytale world where the heroine is not a princess, but a practical middle-class girl who wears sensible shoes, reads books and repeatedly saves the male characters from the consequences of their own foolishness.

And yes, taking it purely as an entertainment, I enjoyed the show, and the girls loved it. We were swept up by the beauty of the settings (it is a visually ravishing spectacle), were enthralled by the cleverness of the CGI and even shed a tear or two. The girls were robustly and reassuringly unimpressed by the Beast’s final transformation into the handsome Prince, however. ‘We preferred him when he was the beast,’ said my daughters sadly. ‘Yes,’ I admitted, ‘so did I.’ At least while he still looks scary, we know to be on our guard.

Stepping into the past – Piskies, Pagans and Saint Maddern

stepsEven in our world of smartphones and Satnav, there are still some places where the fabric of reality has worn thin, where the past seems much closer than the present, and you feel as if you could easily slip into history like the heroine of a time-slip romance.

One of those magical spots, close to where we spend our family holidays in Cornwall, is the ancient Holy Well and Chapel at Madron. I first happened across it after turning off a country road in search of a picnic spot, and it is exactly the sort of place it seems appropriate to find by accident rather than design.

The entrance to the Chapel and Well is marked by a stone erected by the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network and accessed via a winding path which weaves through wildflower hedges and stunted trees twisted with ivy. Climb over the ancient moss-covered stone steps and before long, you will see the fluttering ribbons of a Clootie Tree.

well 2Clootie (or cloth) Wells are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas, usually natural springs with an ash or whitethorn tree growing beside them, where strips of cloth are tied to the branches as part of a healing ritual. At Madron, the Clootie or wishing tree grows next to a small stream, and is some way away from the actual spring head, the holy well itself, which can only be accessed by a hidden and very boggy path best tackled wearing wellington boots. The well has been restored using old stones, though it’s probably not too dissimilar to the original stone basin.

Madron Well

The Holy Well

Accounts vary, but once at the well, the ‘patient’ would strip naked and enter the water three times, walk round the well clockwise three times and then rest (sometimes overnight) on a nearby hillock named St Maddern’s Bed. A piece of cloth would be torn from their clothing (near the afflicted area) or a cloth would be dipped into the healing water and used to wash the affected body-part. This cloth would then be tied onto the tree, and as it rotted away, the ailment would disappear.  Some now believe Madron water has unusually high radiation levels which could be connected to its restorative powers.

“[There was] Not a disease… that was not wholly or partly healed by faith in the miraculous water: the maimed and wretched, the diseased and discontented came in troops… till the wild moor was peopled with the multitude and echoed with countless prayers and wishes put up for health and riches and every good gift: then the water ran supernaturally clear and rose and bubbled and whirled when any offering was thrown into it, while Saint Maddern in the niche close by, stood smiling in mercy.” Tales of the West (1828) John Carne

well 3Folklore accumulates around every Clootie Well rather like lichen grows on the overhanging tree branches. Offerings of bread, pins, coins and pebbles were cast into the water as gifts for the local Saint or guardian spirits, or in appeasement of mischievous piskies.  A May Day tradition (still observed at Madron in 1879) was for young women to visit the well before sunrise, performing a ceremony to divine when they would marry. Two grass stems or straws about an inch long were fastened into a cross-shape with a pin and then dropped into the water. Any rising bubbles denoted the number of years the girls had to wait to wed.

These days the votive offerings at Madron range from the divine to the frankly bizarre; wishes written on paper and tied to the tree with ribbons (my daughters love to do this), scraps of fabric torn from clothing, religious artefacts, pieces of scanty underwear and all manner of strange tokens and trinkets with (presumably) personal significance.

chapel 1

The Chapel altar

Walk a little further along the path, and you’ll find the roofless remains of a simple C12th chapel, with a doorway to the North (unusual in Christian churches as it was later considered the devil’s door), a stone altar to the East and a font in the South-West corner, which was originally fed by the same spring as the well. The chapel is surrounded by trees; and is a tranquil, out-of-time sanctuary which tempts you to sit, to reflect and pray (even if that isn’t your usual cup of tea). Rest a while and listen to the wind in the leaves and the ravens croaking as they circle above the chapel, and then send up a prayer. I try to make a pilgrimage here every year to tie a wish on the Clootie tree and say a prayer in the chapel, and some of those wish-prayers have even come true…

chapel well

The Chapel font

The story of Madron Well & Chapel encapsulates the successive ebbs and flows of culture and belief in Ancient Britain –  from Celtic to Roman to Anglo-Saxon, from Pagan to Christian. Madron village is named for Saint Maddern, whose feast day is 17th May – though like so many early saints, his story is obscure. He has been associated with the ancient and obscure British King Madan, but it is more probable that Madron/Maddern was a monk and hermit who settled here, possibly after travelling from Brittany in France to develop his missionary activity. He is said to have built and blessed the little chapel to baptise converts from paganism – and then through the ages became associated with the miracle cure of physical ailments. The village church, consecrated in 1336, is also dedicated to St Maddern.


But dig a little deeper, and this history becomes even more involved and intriguing; ‘Goddesses in World Culture’ lists ‘Modron’ (who appears in the Welsh Text Cullwch and Olwen) as a mother goddess, possibly a local adaptation of the Roman mother goddess Matrona, later Christianised as the Welsh saint Madrun. Madrun was variously recorded as a Cornish widow, a Queen of Gwent and/or granddaughter of King Vortigern, who ruled after the Romans withdrew from Britain around 400AD.

It seems likely that whichever Christian first built the little chapel near Madron Well, the spring itself was already a place of religious significance to local people. The Matrona / mother goddess was popular during Roman times, but when patriarchal Christianity arrived, the old customs had to change – and so maybe the name-association with Saint Madrun/Madron/Maddern was used to ‘transform’ the cult place to the new religion. When Christianity first came to England there were no churches; instead, monks preached by carved stone crosses which were often placed at sites which were already regarded as sacred in pagan worship. Later on, churches would be built nearby. On the road from Madron to Boswarthen, there is still a wheel-headed wayside cross – possibly to show pilgrims the way to the well.

well 1Whatever the name of the presiding deity, this little woodland has been a place of worship and pilgrimage, whether Pagan or Christian, for at least 1500 years and almost certainly for much longer. It’s no wonder that all those centuries of accumulated wishes and prayers have left their psychic mark on the area, imbuing Madron Chapel with a spiritual, otherworldly, slightly eerie quality.

So watch out for the cool breath that tingles the nape of your neck when you walk through an old building, or the feeling you could turn the corner of a shaded path and step back in time… You don’t need a Hogwart’s time turner or Claire Beecham Fraser’s stone circle to access the past, for echoes of it still whisper all around you, if you take the time to listen.

NB: If you do travel to the well to make an offering, please make sure your ‘clootie’ is biodegradable – made from natural fibres that will disintegrate without harming the trees or local wildlife.

What difference does it make? The weird world of the tribute band

These SmithsI recently enjoyed an evening at The Fleece in Bristol, a suitably dark and atmospheric venue for an evening of 80s-retro entertainment with two tribute bands – These Smiths and The Cureheads.  I loved The Smiths and The Cure as a teenager, but never got to see either band play live, and as the vegetarian Morrissey famously declared he’d rather eat his own testicles than revisit The Smiths, a tribute act is as good as it will ever get for legions of devoted fans. My husband stayed at home, not tempted by an evening of shoe-gazing Goth miserableness (the perfect throwback to my teenage years) but I was far too intrigued to give it a miss.

I’m fascinated by lookalikes – the whole concept of transforming yourself into a carbon copy of another person is clever, creepy and slightly pathetic, all at once.  My first novel Lookeylikey centres on a woman who gets so good at the impersonation, her own life effectively ceases to exist; the fatal lure of not just looking ‘like’ a celebrity, but of actually becoming that person. It’s a tricky line to tread without losing your identity (and maybe your mind) and Tribute bands straddle that line all the time.  Are they performing music ‘in the style of’ their chosen artiste… or are they true impersonators?  Are they doing it because they love the music or because they’ve been told they look like the celebrity in question? It’s a chicken and egg situation, but one where the egg looks a bit like the chicken and the chicken looks rather like an egg…

Scan through the listings of any entertainment agency (such as MusicZirconia, named after the lookeylikeys of the jewellery world) or watch Channel 4’s new programme Lookalikes, and you can marvel at the acts on offer. In Lookeylikey, the heroine calls them “a flock of Captain Jack Sparrows created with wigs and lashings of eye-liner,”  and says, “There were far too many photos where I had to read the captions to see who the hell they were supposed to be… some could have passed for a star only in the dimmest of dimly-lit rooms.”  So what drives someone to become an asian Amy Winehouse? A white Whitney Houston? To form a KISS tribute band made entirely of dwarves? And would you really hire someone calling himself Luther Van Dross? Possibly the most tenuous and insubstantial is the lookalike of Chantelle Houghton, the first non-celebrity (arguably) to appear on Celebrity Big Brother, who was in her turn, a lookalike for Paris Hilton (are you keeping up with this?)


Originally called ‘Fat Bob and The Cureheads’ they’ve performed with various line-ups for over 25 years. They recently played to 10,000 fans in Chile, where The Cure are very popular (but have never toured). They inspire professional rivalry in the USA’s ‘top’ Cure tribute band – there’s only room for one fake Robert Smith…

It obviously helps if you bear a passing resemblance to your chosen celeb, which These Smiths’s ‘Morrissey’ did, though he was also faintly and disturbingly reminiscent of my old English teacher. It’s easier to impersonate someone with the iconically raddled look of The Cure‘s Robert Smith – most of us could wear a ratty black wig and apply our lipstick without a mirror and look sorta like him…

Vocally, with both groups, it was hard to tell the difference between the fakes and the originals – both lead singers had the right sound, and carefully copied their lying down on the floor, back to the audience stage tricks. The Cureheads reminded me how many great tracks The Cure released, but I was still longing to hear my favourite school disco record, the one that always got the baby-Goth girls onto the dance floor. One of my companions for the evening, the divine Miss P, shook her head. “They won’t play Lovecats,” she said wisely, “It was overproduced in the studio and is really hard to replicate live.”  She was totes right; she’s a DJ, she knows this stuff.

These Smiths‘s lead guitarist couldn’t manage Johnny Marr’s bright inimitable jangle, sounding like he’d rather be homaging Guns ‘N’ Roses, but he mostly redeemed himself by nailing the amazing shimmery dopplering guitar effect at the start of ‘How Soon Is Now’.  Never having seen them live, I hadn’t realised quite how amazingly, foot-stompingly, uplifting Smiths songs can be. These were real floor-fillers, with a venue-full of people singing along with delight as the fake Morrissey twirled his plastic gladioli and pirouetted across the stage.

The real shocker was how many people enjoying the concert weren’t even born when Morrissey and Marr last shared a stage. Talking to blue-haired, multiply-pierced 23-year old Charlotte in the interval, I wondered how she’d started listening to these bands from the Indie past. She took a drag on her roll-up and shrugged. “Great music is great music,” she said, “Even if it’s really ancient. A friend showed me all this old 80’s music on YouTube and it just, you know, spoke to me.” It gave me a shiver of incipient old age to realise The Smiths are for her are what The Beatles were for me – a legendary band from my parents generation, shrouded in myth and second-hand nostalgia.

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ThundHERStruck – an all female AC/DC tribute act – are featured in the International Museum of Peace and Solidarity in the Republic of Uzbekistan and have my favourite band review EVER – “I’m glad these ladies do a lot of shows in Minnesota in the warm-weather months.”

It’s a weird world, but there’s a huge demand for the Tribute act. It’s not only bands who are dead, or disbanded, or past their best – cover groups are huge here in the West Country where big stadium bands rarely, if ever, appear. Ticket prices and travel arrangements to see a group at the O2 or NEC are so painful and protracted, it’s not surprising there’s an appetite for the knock-offs that spring up like mushrooms.

And what’s in it for the bands? For some, it’s a chance to hang out with mates and play the music they like, a regular source of pocket-money and a good night out with the lads. For some, it becomes all-consuming as personal validation; fame at second hand, but a kind of fame nevertheless. Steven Kurutz’s Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 11.50.41funny, revealing book Like a Rolling Stone is well worth a read, exploring the ‘tributitis’ that can afflict successful cover acts – becoming more ‘Keef’ than Keith Richards himself. My favourite tale of cover-band stardom is the Hull-based builder and David Bowie impersonator who was chased down the streets of Amsterdam by mob of crazed Bowie fans and had to take refuge in a brothel. For three hours. At least, I’m guessing that’s the excuse he gave his wife when he got home.

As for our evening of 80’s nostalgia, it ended with a stage invasion. The mostly 20-somethings clambered up to seize the microphone and sing along drunkenly, joyfully to ‘There is a light that never goes out’, the small stage so swamped with people that the only sign of Morrissey was his gladioli still twirling bravely above the crowd. The young girl behind me had tears in her eyes,  “Can you feel it?” She sniffed happily, “The room is full of love.” I don’t know about that, but enjoyed myself almost as much as I would have done in the 80s seeing the real deal – and rediscovered my love for the music of my teenage years. I think even the grumpy old Grinch-meister Morrissey would approve of that.

Romance – the mirror of our desires

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 11.23.58My introduction to Romantic fiction was through my Grandmother, who adored Georgette Heyer – and lent me books from her ‘library’ from an early age. Sweet, funny and wise, the heroes and heroines in these Regency stories don’t kiss ’til the last page (and certainly never do anything more risqué). The romance is focused on the dance of courtship; elaborate and formal as a quadrille, or giddy and light-hearted as a waltz.  The characters dance from the page, the writing bubbles with joy and the tangled stories resolve neatly – for me, they’re still the ultimate comfort reading. My Grandmother also read what she called her ‘Mogodon’ books; Mills and Boon romances by Betty Neels, in which chaste young heroines were wooed by paternalistic and curiously un-sexy Doctors (who were invariably, inexplicably, Dutch). Gran said they were utterly predictable and unexciting, and therefore more effective, and safer, than taking sleeping pills. But that’s the problem with romance for romance’s sake – who reads Betty Neels now? For writers to endure, they must offer re-readable stories as well as romantic fulfilment.

Great romance books transcend the perceived genre boundaries. Outlander (yes, I know I go on about it) is a romance in the broadest sense, but is enjoyed by readers (I’m thinking here of my Mum and my husband) who would rather hack off their toes with a teaspoon than read romantic fiction. The core of the story is Claire’s relationship with Jamie Fraser, consummated to great effect surprisingly early in the first book – she’s then happily married to him (though not without plenty of emotional entanglements, including with her past/future husband Frank) for the rest of the umpteen book series. The romance may steal your heart, but the books endure and are loved, even by Romance refuseniks, because they also feature masses of action, a huge cast of believable, complicated characters and fascinating historical details (and you’ll absorb all that American and Scottish history without even noticing).

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Infographic –

Romance has certainly changed since Georgette Heyer. Historical heroines can now have a ball in more ways than one, and it’s an unusual modern woman, in any romance sub-genre, who hangs onto her virginity until marriage. I wonder what Gran have made of recent genre-blurring developments in romantic fiction, such as the blending of romance with paranormal elements (though arguably Emily Bronte got there many years before Twilight). I was entranced by Wuthering Heights when I first read it aged 14, (though with hindsight, Heathcliff’s violent moodswings and inarticulate brooding are a massive turnoff). I’m glad I didn’t encounter Twilight or Trueblood as a similarly impressionable teenager – I’d have been a slave to sweetly tortured Edward Cullen and his vampire ilk forever.

On the other hand, Twilight’s big sister, Fifty Shades of Grey, left me cold. It gained plus points for the sexual experimentation, but totally failed the longevity test because I simply didn’t care whether the dreary heroine and self-centred, manipulative hero found love; the only bondage I craved after reading it was to tie the tedious couple together and fling them off the nearest pier. But it did more than any other book to bring the concept of erotic romance (as opposed to erotica) out of the boudoir and into supermarkets, bookstores and the realms of popular discussion.

Romance has definitely got down and dirty – possibly since the rise of e-books (no-one can see what you’re reading) and self-publishing (no editor to tone-down your sex-scenes), or maybe because this ‘realism’ is what we now prefer. We’re no longer content to leave the hero and heroine at the bedroom door, with all subsequent action represented by a row of asterisks. Erotic romance  aims to spice up the traditional boy-meets-girl story arc with sizzling sexual chemistry. You can generally tell which books are going to be saucy; the cover will feature a man with a muscular, naked chest and precariously low-slung trousers, whether battered denim or unbuttoned Regency Buckskins.  Interestingly, the cover pictures are often cut off at the chin, so the chest and rippling 6-pack are the erogenous focus, rather than a handsome face. The heroes are what is known in the trade as Alphas – billionaires (millionaires just don’t cut it anymore), professional athletes, rock stars, aristocrats, firefighters or ‘hot Navy SEALS’. (I had to look that one up. They don’t have tails and flippers.) These men bear about as much resemblance to the boy next door as do the fairies, unicorns and talking animals in my kids’ favourite books, but hey, this is fiction.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 12.40.48Alpha heroes take their inspiration from various brands of battery; their top-of-the-range power tools are Ever Ready, they possess Duracell Bunny endurance to keep going all night and they always have plenty of juice. Frankly, in real life they’d be pretty exhausting, and that’s before we get to dealing with their conflicts, inner turmoil and vulnerabilities (the more interesting ones are always ‘damaged’ and in need of emotional healing that only the heroine can provide). We’ve travelled a long way since a description of nice-but-dim Lysander’s enthusiastic “swuzzonte-nerve” made me giggle as a schoolgirl (in Jilly Cooper’s The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, another of my Grandmother’s favourites). Still, you can learn a lot by reading erotic romances; I now know all about ice-hockey, though I was disappointed to discover after a little internet research that (duh!) real hockey players aren’t chiselled blond Nordic gods, but actually rather schlumpy-looking.

Art imitates life, and so our romances reflect the mores, concerns and interests of our society, however obliquely. Cultural historians in the future will note the ‘bake-off’ factor in the current abundance of cupcake-themed romances and draw the conclusion that opening a cute cafe was the dream career for 21st century women, just as a perusal of 1960s titles would lead you to believe every girl yearned to be a nurse or an air hostess. In these times of increased gender fluidity, same-sex relationships are starting to get a toe-hold in mainstream romance as well as erotica, though equality has a way to go. It’s still unusual for multi-ethnic relationships to thrive in British fiction, though dating a different species (werewolf, vampire, shapeshifter) is entirely acceptable.

One of the trends I’ve really enjoyed recently is romance (erotic or otherwise) from the maleScreen Shot 2016-03-09 at 11.55.06 point of view – often with alternating chapters of she says / he says. Female novelists from Jane Austen onwards have been sparing in their attempts to write romantic scenes from the male POV, and modern romance authors essay it with varying degrees of success. Jeez – who knows what men think about love? Most men would be hard-pressed to tell you themselves. From the books I’ve read recently, I’ve realised it works best if the hero is a bit rough around the edges and swears a lot – I mean, can you imagine the excruciating embarrassment of Mr Darcy musing about the way Elizabeth Bennet makes his breeches tighten? Actually there’s no need to imagine it – there are dozens of dodgy Darcys, horny Heathcliffs, randy Rochesters and Mr thrice-Knightlys throbbing and pulsating (and available on your e-reader).

I’ve had several stories published with a male character POV, using both first and third person narration. They’re great fun to write, but their thoughts have seldom been romantic, so I think an authentic (and raunchy) romantic hero might be my next writing challenge. As for the future of romance and all it’s burgeoning sub-genres, who can tell? As long as the stories are gripping, the heroines combine strength with humour (and so do the heroes), we’ll keep falling in love with romances that reflect the world we really live in, as well as the world to which we’d like to escape.