Four Hundred Years: A sonnet

Today marks four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare. Legendary playwright, accomplished poet, Eskimo Brother of Chris Martin…What better way to honour the immortal bard than with a sonnet?

Four Hundred Years

He drew the crowds from London’s filthy pits

Of bears and dogs and men all stained with blood,

To stand and watch wise fools parade their wits

And fallen kings, betrayed, die in the mud.

His words bewitched our tongues and grew his fame.

Our land and language spread and learned to swagger.

This brave new world still echoed with his name

And proved the pen as mighty as the dagger.

Enduring might may prove more foul than fair.

Still nations bleed, although their wealth abounds.

We seek an exit (pursued by a bear).

Markets are freedom; flesh sold by the pound.

Four hundred years his bones have lain unmoved:

Their home not so much changed, much less improved.

Sophie Sharp, 2016. 

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13 scary reads for the Day of the Dead

The Little StrangerOkay, I lied about the 13 part – there’s actually only 5. Because on a night like tonight, nothing is as it seems….*cue creepy music*. Anyway, what this post lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, because this is a carefully curated collection of the best scary stories to get you in the mood for fright night. Best read after dark, in the middle of a thunderstorm, in an old house with creaky floorboards and unpredictable wiring. Spooky satisfaction guaranteed.

1. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – M. R. James.
You can’t talk about ghost stories without talking about M.R. James. The classic Victorian spooky tale is defined here, with the sense that the past is never quite done with, and could return at any moment with murderous intent. Plus these collected short stories are much more accessible than weightier classics like Dracula or Frankenstein. O whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad is a great starting point. And if you like The Tractate Middoth, you might want to dig out the rather good BBC adaptation that came out last Christmas. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, light up your pipe* and dive in.

2. The Woman in Black – Susan Hill.
I’ve seen the stage version in the West End no less than three times, and I still get shivers down my spine. They use a minimal set and plentiful sound effects, and let your mind fill in the details of the barren marsh, a crumbling gothic edifice, and a shadowy figure lurking just on the edge of your vision. Except, wait – I’m not sure I imagined her…The Daniel Radcliffe outing for the big screen is also worth a watch, although let down by a ‘blah’ finale. For best results, go back to the source text, and be prepared for a few sleepless nights.

3. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski.
Okay, so Marky Z. has made a name for himself as a dahling of the more pretentious literature lover, and you might be a little tired of his need to reinvent the wheel. But there’s a reason this book made such a splash, and it goes beyond experimental forms and wacky typesetting. The narrative threads can be hard to hang on to at times, but they’ll pull you into their oppressive labyrinth until you feel your sense of reality start to warp around the edges. It’s the only book that can make you afraid to look in your closet in case there’s nothing there.

4. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova.
Alright, you’re over vampires. Everyone’s over vampires – the minute Stephanie Whatsherface and Robert ‘Two Expressions’ Pattison got their fangs into the genre, there was no bringing it back to life. But before vampires were sparkly, back when they were still scary but kind of sexy, this smart book took us on a desperate mission into the dark heart of Eastern Europe to defeat an ancient evil. And there wasn’t a werewolf in sight.

5. The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters.
Disclaimer: this book features no girl-on-girl action whatsoever. Not even a little bit. Because Sarah Waters is so much more than just a ‘writer of lesbian fiction’ or even a ‘lesbian fiction writer’. Her skill was evident in her earlier work, but for me, this book proved without doubt that her talent transcends lazy publishing industry labels. The Little Stranger has the trappings of the conventional ghost story: a big house with a tragic past and a family bound together by unhappiness and secrets, watching their way of life fade into history. But though the supernatural elements will send a shiver down your spine, it’s the human frailties at the heart of it all that are truly disturbing. And the final lines deliver a devastating blow.

*For tobacco, like a proper Victorian gentleman. Obviously. Behave, you lot.

Setting the Standard

I’ve always had a weakness for magazines. Part of it comes from my need to be constantly reading something, anything, but there’s also the delightful glossiness of them, the bite-sized tidbits of gossip, the beautiful pictures of clothes I can neither pull off nor afford. I hate making small talk with the person cutting my hair*, but I live for that moment when the foils are in, the timer is set, and I’m presented with a cup of tea and a fat stack of that week’s mags. Heaven. They don’t have to be posh ones either. Since I relocated to Canada, my Dad sends me care packages full of the flimsy titles you can get for 60p in corner shops in the UK – Pick Me Up, Take Me Out, Closer… they’re full of made up celebrity gossip and ‘real life’ stories that veer between the hilarious and the terrifying. Often they meet in the middle: ‘My kidnapper fed me Findus Meat Pies’ is still one of my favourite headlines.

 

And now, the nation of my birth has given me yet another gift, and one that does not have to be a guilty pleasure. You see, the older I get, the more conscious I become of the negative messages that run through magazines aimed at women. The fact that every woman featured has to be categorized by her age, height, weight and dress size; that half the stories are about losing weight, putting stuff on your face and hair to make you look more acceptable, and which celebrities have done the best job at either of these things. I still laugh at Cosmopolitan’s more, ahem, ‘creative’ sex tips, and feel sorry for the unwitting boyfriends on the receiving end of all the ball nibbling and limb contortions. But I also have to think; why are we being told to try quite this hard to make ourselves desirable? **

 

So I thank my lucky stars for Standard Issue; an online women’s magazine that shows modern womanhood in all its confusing, wonderful, messy glory. There’s no full page spreads about shoes; it tackles the big issues head on, from the migrant ‘crisis’ to the battle for access to abortion. It talks about things like mental illness without being either overly dramatic or too general  – just real  people talking about real experiences. I’m also a big fan of the arts coverage – intelligent without being pretentious, fun but not frivolous. Standard Issue’s contributors are freelance writers, bloggers and comedians, and they bring a fresh and very funny perspective to life’s everyday woes and triumphs. Reading feels like having a good old catch-up with your best friend; the one who you can tell about your most embarrassing problems, and they always make you see the funny side.
standard issue
I was going to pick a favourite regular feature, but I can’t; there’s just too many good ones. But special mentions go to Slattern’s Diary, which never fails to make me feel a bit better about my own mess, Letter to My Hometown, an ode to the place that made you who you are, and Donkeys and Elephants, keeping you up to date with all the latest madness in US politics.

Best of all, it’s only available to read online, and it’s 100% free. I’m saving a few trees, and the $7.00 I would have spent on learning about the latest celebrity to slim down to a size 2, using only a dedicated personal trainer and secret gastric band surgery. Sounds like a win to me.

*My stylist is lovely, I’m just horribly anti-social.
** Not that this is exclusive to women’s magazines; Men’s Health and the like are just as bad. Boys, feel free to join us over at Standard Issue; no six-pack required.