Elly McDonald

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“Really, I am the interesting one here” – notes towards an article about fame, hero worship and stalking

Sian Prior, Shy: a memoir (The Text Publishing Company 2014)
Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist (Transworld Publishers 2016)

Nearly three years after its publication, I’ve finally read Sian Prior’s memoir Shy. I put off reading it partly because I know it recounts Sian Prior’s relationship and break-up with a (famous) man I once knew slightly, and I felt me reading it would be prurient. Also because as I listened to Sian being interviewed on the radio, back when the book was first released, the interview was interrupted with the news that another (famous) man I once knew slightly had died, and that plunged me into writing five commemorative pieces for Five Dead Rock Stars whose lives had intersected with mine, and that threw me into a depression that lasted 18 months or longer.

I also put off reading Shy because… really, shy? Not my particular problem.

I did get as far as putting the book on request at my local library. When I was notified it was available to collect I chose not to. I had even discussed the book, tangentially, with my psychologist. Then this month, seated on my psychologist’s couch, discussing my father’s imminent death, I broke off and said “I see you have Sian Prior’s book Shy on your shelves.”

“Yes,” said my psychologist. “Would you like to borrow it?”

And even as I replied “Yes”, she reached across and handed it to me.

For a week or more, while I wrestled with my father’s dying, I didn’t open Shy. Then, when I did, I found it addressed many issues I share with Sian Prior: the death of fathers, the loss of lovers, the imaginary man, the invisible self, the unstable self, the magnet that is fame, the halo effect.

As I so often do, I recorded my first responses on Facebook, that antidote to (and aggravator of) the invisible self:

Elly FB 21 Feb 2017:

Embedded in this book about social anxiety is a book about fame: specifically, the impacts on a talented but insecure woman of being with a famous man. Both Prior and [Carrie] Fisher are fearless inquisitors of how and why The Male Hero affected their sense of self.”

Sian Prior, Shy (p.247):

“… although every famous person is different, fame itself doesn’t change much. It always attracts the same kind of prurient and obsessive behaviour. It always draws attention towards itself and away from everything else. It makes potentially more interesting things fade into invisibility. And fame can make the famous feel like gods. Perhaps it’s inevitable. All that relentless positive reinforcement. Toxic.

For me, that paragraph resonates like a 3-hour church bell-toll.

Prurient and obsessive behaviour? Oh my. Oh yes. I recognise that. Toxicity? Yes. Yes. Yes again. Fame makes the famous feel like gods? Interesting. Seems to me it mostly makes them feel like shit. But other people are keen to cast them as gods, to hero worship. The “I am a golden god!” moments, as immortalised in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, are perhaps inevitable. In 1984, as a rock writer, I wrote a profile of INXS’s Michael Hutchence where he talked about his “Golden God” moments.

Before I go further I need to make a Declaration of Interest, or a confession, or what you will. I am a stalker. I might prefer to couch that in layers of modifications and justifications, explaining it’s really a bit more complex than that, but the simplest truth is this: I am a stalker. I stalked a famous person for years. I scared him and I made his life – and his then-partner’s life – wretched. There is nothing in my life I regret more, that I am more ashamed of, than this. That the person I stalked has been generous and kind, has been gracious, doesn’t alter that. That his then-partner became – and remains – a close, supportive friend is a gift I do not deserve. That they responded that way over time does not change the fact that had stalker laws existed in the early ‘80s, we would have faced off in court.

In 12-Step programs, they say you’re only as sick as your secrets. I say you’re as sick as your unforgiven transgressions. I am thankful for forgiveness.

Sian Prior – who is not a stalker, who lived with her famous partner for ten years – writes:

“He was a fantasy figure. So often silent. So often absent. If we’re going to continue this amateur psychologising, I’d say I projected onto him a whole lot of qualities he never had. Filled in the gaps with whatever suited me. […] I edited out the evidence that didn’t fit my fantasy. Because that perfect, imaginary version of him was my safety zone …” (Shy, p.249)

I knew the man I stalked wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t hope to displace his partner. But I needed – believed I needed – what I saw as his calm and strength. I remember telling my psychologist, the woman who gave me Shy to read, that stalking this man who’d been my friend was my way of keeping the planet spinning on its axis, my defence against overwhelming, catastrophic anxiety. I needed to know where he was, to see him. I only felt safe when I could see him.

Sian writes: “There was a woman sitting in front of me talking to her friend on a mobile […] and at one point she said to him, ‘So what is your strategy for feeling safe with other people?’”

Ten years ago, a ‘life coach’ asked me to complete this sentence: “When I’m alone I ….”

My instant response? “CAN RELAX!”

The life coach startled. “You find other people stressful?” she yelped. There was a pause.

“There are things we can work on to change that” she offered, slowly. Another pause. “But perhaps that’s not something you want to change?”

We agreed it was not a priority.

Sian Prior continues (Shy, p.249): “There’s something more I need to say about love. You’re not going to like this. It will make you squirm. The object of my love may have been imaginary but the love was real. It was the strongest thing I’d ever felt, stronger than my shyness. No wonder I didn’t want to let it go.”

The resonating bells are ringing again, this time a long meditation of Tibetan chimes. Last year, I wrote a blog piece that echoes that paragraph. I called it On Love. And not being able to speak.

It was my way of saying love is real, even when the relationship is fantasy.

This week I read someone else’s blog post, a woman who describes herself as a “matchmaker” pairing up shelter dogs with prospective owners. She wrote about the desire she sees in humans to have a love object, to have a dog, to have anyone, they can love unabashedly, without being challenged by questions of anthropomorphism, reciprocation, fantasy, projection.

I recall being a mature age student at university, talking with a young classmate. She told me, earnestly, that she didn’t put up barriers against love. Barriers like gender. She might be bi-sexual. It was possible the love of her life might in fact turn out to be not a man but a woman.

I remember looking back at her and replying, seriously, that if anyone had asked me when I was her age, I would never have guessed the great love of my life would turn out to be a dog. But it did.

She turned away. I think she thought I was taking the piss.

Earlier this year, I read Carrie Fisher’s memoir, The Princess Diarist.

As so often, I responded on Facebook.

Elly FB 2 Feb 2017:

Finally got around to reading Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist. She spends so many pages klutzing around, apologizing in advance in terror of Harrison Ford’s reaction, justifying herself to us (justifying herself to herself).

Then she goes ahead and makes herself vulnerable anyway.

When she’s not doing the vaudeville shtick, when she’s re-experiencing the bewildered 19 year old mated with A God, she’s very touching.

So far I’m only on their second weekend. She’s (finally) made him laugh, made him momentarily human. She treasures that moment as a high point in her life.

I haven’t yet go to the unearthed poems, which I don’t doubt are excruciating.

But good for her for telling the earth maiden’s side of the story.

Her poems are not excruciating, or no more so than my own juvenilia, written during my stalker phase.

One could never call me a quitter
I take something right and see it
Through till it’s wrong
Auctioning myself off to the highest bidder
Going once, going twice
Gone
Sold to the man for the price of disdain
Some are sold for a song
I don’t rate a refrain.

I guess it was all going just a little too well
If I wasn’t careful I’d be happy pretty soon
Heaven’s no place for one who thrives on hell,
One who prefers the bit to the silver spoon.
Then just when I’d almost resigned myself to winning
When it seemed my bright future would never dim
When my luck looked as though it was only beginning
I met him.

Sullen and scornful, a real Marlboro man
The type who pours out the beer and eats the can
A tall guy with a cultivated leer
One you can count on to disapprove or disappear
I knew right away that he was a find
He knew that you had to be cruel to be kind
Given this, he was the kindest man I’d ever met
Back came my sense of worthlessness
And my long lost pains of regret
I was my old self again, lost and confused
Reunited with that old feeling
Of being misunderstood and misused.

Sold to the man for the price of disdain
All of this would be interesting
If it weren’t so mundane.

(The Princess Diarist, pp.110/111)

That’s Carrie, the 19 year old Carrie of 1976. But it could easily be 18 year old me, in 1979 – or more pointedly, 22 year old me in 1983, recalling 18 year old me.

Which could be interesting, if it weren’t mundane.

Interesting. An interesting concept. My sister tells me that whenever I start a sentence “It’s interesting that…”, what follows is not.

Sian Prior writes about what’s interesting and what’s not; who’s interesting, who should be:

‘So Lucky’

They looked.
I felt them looking.
I worried about what they were thinking.
I couldn’t act normal because I knew they were watching.
I straightened my back and lifted my head higher.
I chose my facial expressions with care.
But I knew they were not really looking at me.
They were looking at him.
And I hated that.
I hated that their focus on him prevented them from seeing me.
Even though I hate them looking at me.
What was that?
Was that the difference between being shy and being an introvert?
Or between being a shy extrovert and an introvert?
If I had been an introvert I wouldn’t want them to look at me.
I might be relieved to walk away and let them take his photo.

I didn’t want them to take my photo.
But I wanted to be the one they were interested in.
Or the equally interesting one.
That’s why I fought it so long and so hard.
Found ways to have my say.
Pushed myself out into the world.
I didn’t want to be interesting only because I was with him.
But I wanted to be with him.
He made me feel interesting.
Interesting, isn’t it?

(Shy, pp.116-120)

In a Daily Mail article (11 Oct 2016), Tziphorah Malkah (the erstwhile Kate Fischer) said of her past relationship with magnate James Packer: “He’s going on Mariah’s [Carey] reality show. He is that bloke, really I am the interesting one here. He is just like fiddling around.”

Tziphorah wrote on Facebook (12 Oct 2016): James Packer will do ANYTHING to continue to be associated with me! And who can blame him? The whole world knows that I’m the most interesting thing that has and will ever happen to him.

People laughed at that. They laugh because now Kate Fischer is no more and Tziphorah Malkah is a broke, trainee aged-care nurse who is obese. Being poor and fat renders women uninteresting. But Tziphorah Malkah had a point. She, as Kate Fischer, had a successful career as an international model and a budding career in major films when she met Packer. Her story since is interesting, in a dark fable kind of way.

Elly FB 21 Feb 2017:

Many years ago I was friends with Jane Campion the film director. She used to say that as a young woman she hoped to find An Artist and be His Muse. Then when she got dumped, again, she started making fierce dark angry art at art school, and her art teacher encouraged her. She realised she was author, artist – not model or muse at all.

Jane Campion made Bright Star from the POV of Keats’ love Fanny Brawne and was roundly taken to task in reviews I read for making Fanny the focus when the “real” “Bright Star” was the poet, Keats.

By the way – see what I did there? I found a way to make reference to a former friend who is famous. Not just any friend who drifted away over time but who said and did things that influenced me: a famous friend. I’d like to think if Jane were not famous we’d have renewed our friendship in recent times on Facebook. But she is, if somewhat less so than she was, and she is inaccessible to me now.

Carrie Fisher has a lot to say about being interesting by association:

“Having grown up around show business, I knew that there were stars and there were stars. There were celebrities, talk show hosts, product spokespeople, and then there were movie stars – people with agents and managers and publicists and assistants and body guards, who got tons of fan mail and could get a movie financed and who consistently graced the covers of magazines. Their grinning familiar faces stared proudly out at you, encouraging you to catch up with their personal lives, their projects, and how close they were to being the most down-to-earth of those famous-to-earthlings.

“Harrison was one of that epic superstar variety, and I wasn’t. Was I bitter about this? Well… not so you’d notice.” (The Princess Diaries, pp.59/60)

That’s just part of an epic, poetic depiction of fame as personified in The Hero. Here’s how she warmed up:

“When I’d first seen him sitting on the cantina set, I remember thinking, This guy’s going to be a star. Not just a celebrity, a movie star. He looked like one of those iconic movie star types, like Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy. Some sort of epic energy hung around him like an invisible throng.

“I mean, let’s say you’re walking along in the twilight, minding your own business (your own show business), and there’s fog all around you – a mysterious sort of cinematic fog. And as you continue walking, you find that you’re moving slower and slower, because you can barely see a few feet in front of you. And all of a sudden the smoke clears. It clears enough for you to imagine that you’re beginning to ever so slowly make out the outline of the face. And not just a face. This is the face of someone that painters would want to paint or poets wax poetic about. An Irish balladeer would feel compelled to write a song to be sung drunkenly in pubs all over the United Kingdom. A sculptor would sob openly while carving the scar on this chin.

“A face for the ages. And seeing him sitting there in the set that would introduce him to the world as Han Solo, the most famous of all the famous characters that he would come to play – well, he was just so far out of my league. Compared to him I didn’t even have an actual verifiable league. We were destined for different places.” (The Princess Diarist, pp.59/60)

It hit Carrie hard. She continues:

“I looked over at Harrison. He was… God, he was just so handsome. No. No, more than that. He looked like he could lead the charge into battle, take the hill, win the duel, be the leader of the gluten-free world, all without breaking a sweat. A hero’s face – a few strands of hair fell over his noble, slightly furrowed brow – watching the horizon for danger in the form of incoming indigenous armies, reflective, concerned eyes so deep in thought you could get lost down there and it would take days to fight your way out. But why run? It couldn’t really be such a hardship to find yourself lost in such a place with all that wit and ideas safely stored there. Hey, man! Wait a second! Share the wealth here. Give the face to one man and save the mind for another and both would have plenty. But no! This was the ultimate living example of overkill. So how could you ask such a shining specimen of a man to be satisfied with the likes of me? No! Don’t tell me! The fact is that he was! Even if it was for a short while. That was way more than enough. It would eventually get exhausting trying to measure up, or keep up. I was a lucky girl – without the self-esteem to feel it, or the wherewithal to enjoy what there was to enjoy it and then let go.” (The Princess Diarist, pp87/88)

This is the toxicity. How could the famous, the shining specimens, not feel like golden gods? But who is it the more exhausting for? Who tries to measure up, to keep up? The lover or the beloved?

An editor friend was arguing yesterday about the misuse of the word “icon”, especially as applied to celebrities. I replied, “It’s not so different. An icon is a portal to the divine.”

An icon is itself a divine artefact.

How tiring, to be someone’s idol. How tiring to keep the earth spinning, the planets aligned. How tiring to be assigned responsibility for someone else’s sense of self-worth.

“I’m a hick,” I recall saying to him.

“No,” Harrison answered. “You think you’re less than you are. You’re a smart hick.” And then, “You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.” (The Princess Diarist, pp.106/107)

The man I stalked has many times tried to soothe my unhealed wounds.

I remember crying “But do you LIKE me? Do you LIKE me?”

Like some demented Sally Field impersonator desperately clutching at her tall, inanimate, manly Oscar.

I remember my friend replying “I like you ENORMOUSLY. I just don’t understand why you do this.”

I remember the first time I realised he found me interesting. I was looking down at a pub table. I remember exactly the cosmetics I had on my eyelids. I looked up and he was across the table, watching, watching me looking down.

I remember sometime after our one night stand (which didn’t last a night), sitting on that same bed, asking him: “Why did you have sex with me?”

I remember him replying carefully, “Because I found you physically attractive.”

I remember hissing angrily in disbelief.

Carrie Fisher writes:

“How I’ve portrayed Harrison is how Harrison was with me forty years ago. I’ve gotten to know him a bit better over time, and as such somewhat differently. He’s an extremely witty man and someone who seems more comfortable with others than he is, or ever was, with me.” (The Princess Diarist, p.181)

I can relate. She continues:

“Time shifts and your pity enables you to turn what was once, decades ago, an ordinary sort of pain or hurt, complicated by embarrassing self-pity, into what is now only a humiliating tale that you can share with others because, after almost four decades, it’s all in the past and who gives a shit?” (The Princess Diarist, p.186)

Interesting.

Sian Prior writes: “I thought we were a poem. In the end, though, we were just a string of platitudes.” (Shy, p.248)

I find that interesting, even if mundane.

persephone

Persephone about to be abducted by a god (Hades, Lord of the Underworld) – Gathering Flowers by Albert Lynch


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Throne of the Caesars: Iron & Rust by Harry Sidebottom

iron-rust-harry-sidebottom

Iron & Rust is the first of Harry Sidebottom’s planned trilogy Throne of the Caesars and is quite different in tone and ambition to his Warrior of Rome series. The Warrior of Rome novels are earthy, exciting, frequently funny and filled with engaging characters. Iron & Rust is grander in scale and more emotionally distanced, dissecting power politics at the highest level. It’s a study in power – why it’s desired, how it’s achieved, how it might be held. The characters are not loveable and function like chess pieces. Their machinations are appalling – sometimes desperate, sometimes pathetic – and what is at stake is not simply power but survival. Overwhelmingly there’s a sense of nowhere to run, nowhere to hide; no place of safety. These players cannot choose to remove themselves from the game.

Is it entertaining? Yes indeed. But it’s not a light read. It’s information-dense, with surprising, sometimes startling, insights into how people thought and behaved in the Roman Empire of the 3rd Century C.E. It’s thoughtful about politics and philosophy. It’s very well-written, which is not always the case within this genre. I enjoyed the second book of this trilogy, Blood & Steel, better than Iron & Rust; I think the pacing and characterization gain confidence. But Iron & Rust is extremely interesting and sets up the trilogy well.

Highly recommended.


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Wolves of the North by Harry Sidebottom

wolves-of-the-north

Wolves of the North is my favorite novel so far in Harry Sidebottom’s excellent Warrior of Rome series. This time, the central character Ballista and his posse, his familia, venture out into what was for me – and I suspect for most readers – uncharted territories. Prior to reading Wolves of the North I knew next to nothing about the Goth tribes living on the steppes of the Caucasus in the 3rd century C.E., and next to nothing about the Hun tribes in what is now eastern Europe. Reading about the Heruli, the Urugundi and the Alani tribes was like reading science fiction or action-fantasy (like GoT’s Dothraki).

The author seemed to be having fun imagining our small group of Romans into this hostile and very alien environment. He also had fun playing with genre, weaving a serial killer whodunnit sub-plot into his action adventure. 

I found this book immensely entertaining, maintaining the high standard of the previous four Warrior of Rome installments but shaking up the formula. I look forward to Ballista’s further adventures.


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The Amber Road by Harry Sidebottom

amber-road

Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome series is superior historical fiction, conspicuously well-written and exceptionally well-researched. I’ve loved all six novels in the series so far and this latest did not disappoint. In The Amber Road, the central character Ballista is sent on a political mission to his childhood home in northern Germania. Ballista is a younger son of an Angle warlord but his welcome is uncertain. A hostage in Rome in his teens, he has spent the 20 or so years since in Rome’s service as a senior military commander. Where do his loyalties lie? Which identity will prove stronger, the Romanized ‘Ballista’ or the Angle ‘Dernhelm’?

Ballista/Dernhelm and his companions are beset with physical dangers but for Ballista, perhaps the deadliest threats are embedded in unresolved family and intimate relationships from the past. Can he survive? Can he even see what’s staring straight at him?


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The Caspian Gates by Harry Sidebottom

caspian-gates

The Caspian Gates is the fourth novel in Harry Sidebottom’s outstanding historical fiction series Warrior of Rome, set in the turbulent 3rd Century C.E. Although the series has consistent elements, it avoids being overly formulaic; it’s as if with each instalment the author sets himself the challenge of incorporating something different and distinctive.

Consequently, in The Caspian Gates readers can expect the characters to be familiar friends, the Angle-born Roman military commander Ballista and his ‘familia’. They can expect the meticulous attention to place – geographical features, topology, climate conditions. They can expect to be introduced to at least one culture most of us will find exotic – in this case, the kingdom of Suania, the Caucasus region now known as Georgia. They can expect that the narrative will be driven once again by Ballista and his familia being sent on a perilous political mission.

What they might not expect is that The Caspian Gates is, simultaneously, a reworking of the ancient Greek legend of Jason and Medea: Jason being the leader of the famed Argonauts, in quest of the Golden Fleece; Medea being his sometime lover turned harpy. The lands Ballista travels through in The Caspian Gates are infused with mythic ‘memories’ of Jason and Medea. Ballista is about to find out that the past is never really past.

Harry Sidebottom writes so well, and so intelligently, that reading these books is a pleasure. Yes, Ballista behaves badly in this tale. But we really wouldn’t want him to be predictable. Would we?


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Shadow and Dust (short story) by Harry Sidebottom

african-desert

Picture this: battle lines are drawn – it could go either way. Nothing goes to plan. You – in the guise of a Roman special forces’ scout – hurtle through lethal challenges towards whatever end Fortuna decrees.

Harry Sidebottom’s short story Shadow and Dust is a narrative offshoot of Blood and Steel, the second novel in his Throne of the Caesars series. It precedes his latest novel Fire and Sword. The action is set in North Africa in the tumultuous 3rd Century Roman Empire and in moments of respite Sidebottom’s characters reflect on the pros, cons and consequences of empire in terms relevant to contemporary politics.

For readers like myself, who are not military history buffs or re-enactors, the initial descriptions of how battle forces are arrayed are slightly confronting (but I have trouble telling left from right). Once the set-piece strategies break down the tale is unfailingly tense, gripping – and fast. It’s a tribute to Sidebottom’s storytelling skills that his characterisations are as strong as the action.

The ending packed a punch. I found the epitaph – an actual historical inscription – moving.


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Ancient Warfare: A very short introduction by Harry Sidebottom

roman-ballista

Accurately subtitled “A Very Short Introduction’, Ancient Warfare is ambitious in that it attempts to summarize a range of academic perspectives and to critique their main premises. This makes for a genuinely helpful overview for students new to the formal study of warfare in the Classical worlds of Rome and Greece. The first four chapters do assume some ability to engage with academic theory but general readers will find the writing accessible. The final three chapters – including chapters on ‘Strategy’ and ‘Fighting’ – are enthralling.

The Further Reading list at the back of the book is an invitation to explore in more depth how different historians have interpreted Classical warfare; I found the diagrams, reproduced art and Chronology useful too.