Review: Mongrel

Mongrel,
Sayra Begum,
Knockabout Comics

There’s an old saying that you will never understand another person, unless you walk some miles in their shoes. I’ve often thought that books, especially autobiographical works, are one of the best ways we have to learn at least some understanding of another person’s life, their culture, their perspectives, and Mongrel reinforces that belief. We may never truly be able to walk in another’s shoes, not completely – how could we, every life is a unique set of very personal circumstances, even the life experiences of twins will differ – but we can obtain a look into those other lives, other interests, worries, cultural drives and norms, and by doing so we expand our own world a little more (and hopefully make ourselves a bit more aware, a bit more open to the differing lives of others).

Drawn in a rather beautiful pencil work, Mongrel offers some beautiful visuals, lovely to look at but carefully done so they never overwhelm the subject matter. The style is quit distinctive too, especially the faces of Sayra and her family and friends, the large eyes and often profile perspective putting me in mind of the way humans are depicted in ancient Assyrian or Egyptian art. It’s an unusual style, at least in Western comics, but it works beautifully, as well as adding another layer of difference, reminding us that we’re looking into what, for many of us, will be a different culture, a different set of societal and familial norms. There are some lovely little visual techniques too – Shuna lost in thought of how her life has lead to this moment, her memories shown literally fragmented, like jigsaw pieces of her life, a thought bubble floating above her which she then reaches up and pops.

Walking through the door of my family home was like walking through a gateway to Bangladesh.”

Shuna’s story will, no doubt, be familiar to more than a few readers, those who have had to make that difficult journey that spans different, often competing, or even opposing cultural drives. Her religious upbringing and the societal expectations her parents – especially her mother – have are formed from Bangladeshi society, but Shuna and her siblings are being brought up in the UK. Try as they might to limit their children’s external activities – which friends they can see, when they can go out and when they cannot – they are, of course, exposed to other experiences and possibilities, and some of those seem alluring, exciting even, compared to home.

But home, as they say, is where the heart is, and for all the urge to rebel there is also an urge to conform, to please the parents and others in your community, to be an accepted, welcome part of it. While the experiences may differ, in many ways this is no different really from what most of us go through growing up, especially in our teens. We long to belong, for the warmth, love and safety and acceptance of family, but we’re also driven by the often contradictory impulse to stand out, to explore our own path. We want to belong and to be individual at the same time, one of the great contradictions of human nature, yes, but it is also part of what drives us to grow. It’s often a rocky road for most of us, but for those with strictly interpreted cultural beliefs and standards, it can be so much the harder, the possible penalties for transgression far higher.

It is to her great credit that Sayra explores all sides of this generational, cultural and societal problem. It would be all too easy to take a simplistic approach – make the parents out to be villains, inflexible, unwilling to bend to accommodate the fact they are raising their children in a different land with different standards and opportunities. Yet Sayra never falls into this trap. Which is not to say there isn’t conflict here, there is in fact a lot of that, and a lot of butting of heads, of inflexible approaches and failure to compromise, to try and adapt to each other’s competing drives and needs.

But Sayra makes it clear that her mother’s strict stance, no matter how harsh it may seem to us, is driven from love for her children – her religious beliefs make her fear that their failure to comply with how she thinks they are to behave imperils them, that it could take them from the path of righteousness and into temptation. In short that her children could damn themselves and on their day of judgement they would not ascend to Paradise and so she would lose them for all eternity.

Although Sayra is drawing on her own mixed heritage, being British Bangladeshi, there is much here that any of us will recognise from the awkward moments of our own youth, of striking out on our own, sometimes against what was expected of us, against a parent’s wishes or expectations. Family and people are family and people, no matter where we come from or travel to, after all. For those who have had an even harder journey trying to claim their own individual experience in the face of family, community and societal norms – cross-cultural children, gay or trans youth for instance – it will most certainly seem all the more familiar. The cultural imperatives and strifes may be different but the song remains the same. A beautiful and emotionally honest work

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Echoes of Fear

Echoes of Fear,
Starring Trista Robinson, Hannah Race, Paul Chirico, Marshal Hilton, Norman Zeller
Directed by Brian Avenet-Bradley, Laurence Avenet-Bradley

Arriving after generating a lot of good word of mouth on the festival circuit, Brian and Laurence Avenet-Bradley’s Indy US horror offers the discerning horror hound an intriguing, well-made, gloriously slow-burn take on the age-old haunted house genre, not using the (to me anyway) increasingly annoying jump-cuts to generate fright (I don’t think they do, startling is not the same as creating terror or fright), but by doing it the correct way, taking time to build atmosphere, slowly building up events and adding in some red herrings, to draw the viewer deeply into the film.

As you may guess from that statement, I am a sucker for a good haunted house story, but all too often come away disappointed by directors who opt for predictable cliché and quick jumps in lieu of the effort of deeper storytelling and atmosphere-building, the sorts of things that really make a good ghost story work. Here the Avenet-Bradley’s do take that time, allowing their camera to explore the huge, unusually laid out old house from intriguing, often unsettling angles, and their minimal cast (Trista Robinson as Alisa carries much of the film herself, her boyfriend, Paul Chirico as Brandon, often absent – also fairly useless in helping her – her only main help her best friend, Steph, played by Hannah Race) to lay down those foundations that let the story grow at its own pace.

Alisa has inherited this huge, rambling, hillside house from her doting, loving grandfather, who supposedly had a heart attack in the shower… Except a brief prologue hints to us that perhaps this wasn’t quite natural causes and there is someone, something in the house. Alisa moves in with the intent of sorting through her grandfather’s belongings, fixing up anything needing repaired and selling the house on. Her boyfriend can only stay briefly, leaving her mostly on her own, apart from visits from her friend Steph, even when Alisa starts to worry that there is something not right in the house.

The house itself is almost another character in this minimal cast ensemble. Built on a rocky hillside it has multiple levels sloping down, and many rooms, an awful lot of storage spaces (more than you’d expect), crawl spaces behind walls and under the lower parts of the rambling structure, concealed elements above in the high ceiling upper parts. The camera glides around all of these by day and night, and soon generates a feeling of unease even before anything much has happened – there is something just wrong about this house, the size, the layout, the multiple rooms and closets, the hidden little nooks. Despite her growing unease – at first she fears a squatter has been using the weird design of the house to sneak in and camp out somewhere, and she may be right – Brandon shrugs everything off and leaves Alisa to sort the place out.

But she is right, there is something wrong with this place, and not just a potential squatter. It starts slowly, finding something in a different place from where she left it, wondering if she just imagined it, noises that may just be the sounds of an old house or may be something more. Finding items from a squatter in a concealed area should solve that mystery, but no, that’s not the main cause of the noises and unease. The camera follows Alisa through both big, open spaces, like the high-ceilinged, broad living room to the tight confines of the crawlspace under the house.

While you’d expect the latter to create a nice, claustrophobic fear, which it does, the Avenet-Bradleys also manage to craft that fear even in the more open, well-lit spaces, making Alisa seem vulnerable to something that could come from anywhere around her. Even minimalist moves like the camera looking out of a brightly lit bedroom into a dark hallway beyond the open door contrive to create a creeping unease – such a simple move but so effective (it reminded me of Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which took a dark staircase in an ordinary suburban home and also made it creepingly terrifying through little more than slow camera moves and darkness and tension).

As Alisa realises there is more going on than a squatter, she attempts, despite her fear, to deal with it in a fairly practical fashion, she’s quite resourceful and determined (I would have been running out of there!). Since most ghost lore hints that a spectre remains because it has some unfinished business in the mortal realm, that it needs help to complete before it can move on, she starts to investigate the house, and her grandfather’s death. Was it really a heart attack? Was this presence there when he lived here? What does it want? Is it connected to her family in some way she doesn’t know, or just a random manifestation?

I’m not going to go any further on those latter points as it would risk us crossing over the border into that unattractive land of Spoiler Country. Suffice to say Alisa is going to investigate, and there may be more going on here than at first we may think. In many ways Echoes of Fear plays the many classic tropes of the Old Haunted House genre, but in many other ways it takes its own path and its own style to generate a genuinely dread-inducing ghost tale, wonderfully slow-burn, building, building, building, to a satisfying crescendo. This is one to watch good and late at night, with most of the lights out, for maximum effect!

Echoes of Fear is released on demand and download by Second Sight from July 20th, and on DVD (Certificate 15) from August 3rd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Lockdown Photo Journal

We were allowed one single, solitary exercise walk during the height of Lockdown. For those living alone this was especially hard, essentially meaning being isolated at home for the bulk of the day and evening, so those walks were important to my mental health as well as physical. Of course where I go the camera goes, and that was another way for me to cope with the months of stress and depression during Lockdown, documenting my city during these strangest of times

Empty Streets 04

Empty Streets 03

Empty Streets 02

Coming home from the last visit to a friend before Lockdown – even though the official announcement was still a day or two away at this point, the cinemas and bars and restaurants had already closed. Saturday night on Lothian Road, lined with bars, restaurants, two cinemas, two theatres and a concert hall all nearby, a place I would avoid late on a weekend evening because it is so busy with drunks, and here it was, the only other people I saw a couple waiting on their own for a bus home. It was eerie and unsettling to see this normally busy, lively area so quiet – I have seen more life there at 3am walking home from a late night Film Festival show… This was a harbinger of how my city, and countless others around the world, would soon become.

Thank You NHS

Back in late March, early days of Lockdown, little traffic, the normal noises of the city mostly absent, and a haar had descended on the city, as it often does here, the mist rolling in from the mighty Firth of Forth, adding to the sense of quiet and fear. On this day as I walked Princes Street I saw the digital advertising billboards on the bus shelters had all been changed to “Thank you to our amazing NHS staff”, one after the other after the other progressing down this normally bustling street.

Rebus Will Not Drink Here Today

The famous Oxford Bar, where Ian Rankin’s fictional Edinburgh detective from his Rebus novels likes to drink, as does the author himself. Closed like the other bars. His birthday fell during Lockdown, so Ian took a bottle of beer and a glass, walked to the Ox, poured his pint and had it standing outside the closed pub.

Viva NHS

Rainbows in windows and on the streets, and support for our NHS workers were everywhere. As with other nations the health professionals were overwhelmed, and in addition they were in the front line so even more vulnerable to infection, and the risk of bringing that home to family (some simply didn’t see their families for ages to minimise travel and risk). And still they looked after us as best they could.

Pub and Castle - Both Closed

Bright sunny spring day – the Blue Blazer bar in the foreground, the western flank of Edinburgh Castle atop its great volcanic rock in the background, Both closed.

No Shopping Here Today 01

Normally bustling George Street in April sunshine, all the fancy, expensive shops closed, no shoppers, no tourists, barely any traffic.

Tourist Free Zone 03

Vid - Deserted Royal Mile

The top of the Royal Mile on a bright spring day. This should be heaving with tourists, instead barely a soul to be seen. As I walked the eerily deserted streets that would normally be so busy I kept hearing the music from the film 28 Days Later in my head. Much as we moan about legions of tourists it was, frankly, scary and unsettling and disturbing to see my city like this, still a glorious, grand old dame on a day like this, but with nobody there to admire her save me and my lens. An uncanny feeling to be able to stand in the middle of the road in this UNESCO world heritage site and be able to do a 360 degree pan with the camera safely because there was no traffic…

The Distance Between Us Keeps Us Safe

Ladies having a socially-distanced safe chat early in Lockdown, in the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I should have been enjoying the Ray Harryhausen at 100 exhibition there of this wizard of cinema, a movie maker who filled my early cinema going with sheer wonder. But the galleries were closed – the grounds remained openk so I walked to them often, enjoying the sculpture gardens.

Lockdown Grassmarket 01

Empty Old Town Streets

The Grassmarket, right below the Castle, normally packed with locals coming and going and many tourists, stag and hen parties and students enjoying the many bars and restaurants. Some of the inns here were centuries old when Robert Burns came to stay in them. Now empty, just me and my camera, some of the old pubs boarded up as they were worried about vandals or looters early on, which added to the strange empty feeling of the city.

All Closed

Cockburn Street in the Old Town. Just a few years ago Hollywood was in town shooting scenes for the Avengers at the top of this street. Look at it here…

The Tired Expression Says It All

Quick, street shot from the hip, lady early on in Lockdown carrying her groceries home during the period when a lot of shelves were empty and some items hard to get, adding to the overall feeling of worry, stress, fear. Not a technically good shot, being hurriedly shot from the hip, but it captured that oh so bloody tired of it and wondering how long the road would be feeling, I thought.

How We Shop Now 03

Hardware store on Morningside Road, one of the few businesses still open. Nobody allowed in during Lockdown, so they had a screen at the door, people socially distanced in queues outside, waiting their turn, then asking for what they needed, it would be brought to them at the door and they would pay by contactless card. This would become a model later on as Lockdown eased a little more, my own bookshop did this sort of “click and collect” until we were allowed people back inside in the last couple of weeks (with many safety rules implemented).

Social Distancing at the Bike Co-op 02

Cycle shops stayed open too, peforming much needed maintenance – many took to bikes to avoid what was still running of public transport (to avoid more possible infection vectors). Bus drivers and trams kept going on reduced service here, props to those who kept them running for those who had to keep working and needed the transport, while the bike shops made socially distanced queues and saw people at the doors for repairs and advice to keep them going too. I noticed most bike shops also had air pumps and water outside so cyclists could use them if needed without coming in, just a nice little extra but of help being offered to the community.

A Tunnel of Cherry Blossoms 01

A Tunnel of Cherry Blossoms 02

Not all doom and gloom though, nature kept ticking away regardless of the worries oppressing the human world. The cherry blossoms performed their annual magic, something always lovely to see, but this year oh so much more special and wonderful and needed. As I was lining up this shot of the “tree tunnel” in the Meadows I hadn’t noticed these young, masked women had spotted me and posed for the shot!

Cathedral, No People

Saint Giles Cathedral and Parliament Square, with not another soul to be seen. Normally so many tourists here, some sitting on the steps in the sun, resting their feet, lawyers coming and going from the nearby High Court and the Advocate’s Faculty. Not now. I’m not used to seeing it like this, it was upsetting and worrying, but again mediating it through my camera lens helped a bit, and I was determined to document my city during this time.

We Are Observing Social Distance

Safe, social distanced chatting in Princes Street Gardens. My walks brought me here often as a place to rest mid-walk before going home. With almost no traffic the sounds of the birds in the Gardens was so much more obvious and wonderful, while the spring weather meant they were perfumed with the scent of blooming flowers, all of which helped me cope with the endless days of isolation and worry.

The Line for Snacks 01

As the months passed a few places re-opened doing takeaway only coffee, like this one in the Meadows. My god the luxury of being able to buy a coffee again, even if you had to take it outside, the first brew I hadn’t made for myself in weeks and weeks. The simple pleasure of being able to buy a cup of java then sit in the park with it…

Spread Out For Safety

Socially distanced walking, jogging and cycling on the Union Canal at Fountainbridge. I avoided the narrower parts of the canal walkway – not enough space for social distancing, and if people left space between walkers then joggers and cyclists would go right through the safe gap, huffing and puffing as they did, which was alarming under the pandemic conditions, so I stopped walking those areas and only using the segments like this where there was more room for everyone to be safer.

Just One Passenger Today 02

Single, solitary passenger waiting for a tram at what should be rush hour, in the Haymarket area, next to bus and train interchanges, should have been packed with commuters, but this time just one chap.

Dominion 01

Dominion 02

Cinemas closed even before the official Lockdown. Normally see several films a month and it was very strange to go so long without being able to see the silver screen (yes, I can watch at home, it isn’t the same experience), and this incuded my annual sojourn at the world oldest continually running film fest, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which didn’t happen this year, of course. The closed and shuttered cinemas were stuck in time, their posters advertising current and coming attractions from just before everything stopped, like a time capsule. This is the family-owned Indy cinema The Dominion in Morningside.

Yoga Al Fresco 01

Lockdown Juggling Practise 06

Some made use of local green spaces – while I walked with the camera or sat on a bench in the parks to read for a while, others were performing their yoga exercises on Bruntsfield Links, or learning to juggle.

Life Among the Flowers

God, how important nature was to many of us in lifting our spirits – the return of life and colour and light in the spring is always welcome after winter here, but this year it was so badly needed to help us remember there was still magic and beauty to be found.

It's a Quiet Springtime This Year 02

So few people in the earlier parts of Lockdown even in the heart of the city in Princes Street Gardens, just below the now closed Castle.

Hooded and Masked

Masked and hooded in the Gardens during Lockdown.

A Hand to Hold is a Wonderful Thing 01

Some were fortunate enough to have someone to hold their hand during this long, dark, isolating time.

Hello, There

Mask and Turban

Mask or turban, which to wear today….

Operatic 02

Operatic Vid

We had to look for any small win, any little thing to cheer ourselves. One bright day, walking alone in the Meadows, I heard a beautiful voice singing arias, and found this young woman. I hadn’t heard anyone busking in weeks, let alone singing like this. The birds chirped in the trees above as she sang, voice clear, soaring out and up into the branches above to join those birds. I sat under a tree and listened, it was so sublime and wonderful and magical I cried at the beauty I had so unexpectedly found. It reminded me of the moment from The Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins’ character breaks the rules to play an opera piece over the prison tannoy, and everyone stops, all those locked within the walls lifted by the beauty of the song and the music. Oh god, it was just beautiful for a few, precious moments.

Trio 04

Masked trio strolling the Union Canal during Lockdown.

Vid - a Walk Through the Misty Trees

Taking Shelter

Masked in the Mist

Misty Day 016

The haar returned as spring became summer and Lockdown rolled on. Despite the weather I went walking – I had to get out even for a while, and besides, it is more like walking through a light cloud than rain. Naturally I took photos and video clips as I walked. Edinburgh looks wonderful, draped in this soft, silken blanket…

Water Music

As the weather rurned to warmth and sun, more were out walking, some found good spots, like this chap sitting by the old Leamington Lift Bridge to play his guitar in the sunlight.

Time For a Quick Break 01

It's So Tiring 01

It's So Tiring 02

With little road traffic much of what was on the road was cycle couriers, working round the clock delivering meals – with restaurants closed only home delivery was available, and these guys were criss-crossing the city all the time. I would see them in the same few spots on my walks, where they had found areas to grab a quick, much-needed rest. Many were clearly exhausted.

Dalry Road, Midsummer Night 02

Sring had turned to summer as Lockdown went on. I went out for a stroll on Midsummer Night and took a few photos. This was after eleven at night, an hour after the summer sun had finally set, but in Scotland at Midsummer the skies just don’t really get dark. Even after the sun goes down there is a long, faerie light of twilight, the sky remains aglow and by 3am the sun is already rising again. We are not in the land of the mmidnight sun, but we do overlook their front lawn.

Keeping the City Tidy

Even during Lockdown the city had to be kept clean. While many of us were furloughed the bin lorries still came round, the street cleaners still picked up the litter and made our city look nicer.

Plenty of Parking Spaces Today 03

The concrete monstrosity of the multi-storey car park which previous generations of town planners allowed to be constructed right next to the Castle (what where they thinking??). Horrid, brutal structure and jarringly out of place where it is, but during Lockdown, totally empty of cars, and shot in black and white, it looked photogenic. I nipped in during a walk to snap this thinking I may never see it empty like this again…

Grassmarket Slowly Returns To Life 02

Grassmarket Slowly Returns To Life 01

The pubs re-open with strict distancing and safety rules next week, but the beer gardens and pavement cafes re-opened just a few days ago in Scotland (where Lockdown rules have been more cautious – as they should be – than those rules enacted by Westmonster down south). It was odd to see the Grassmarket like this, still quiet by what normal standards would have, but at least some life, compared to the deserted, boarded up scenes I shot a few weeks ago in this spot.

I shoot so many photos each year, and took even more during Lockdown, partly to document the times in my city, partly as one of my coping methods. I was also live tweeting video and photos as I walked, as a sort of “virtual walk” for those who couldn’t get out at all to enjoy, and several people got in touch to say they appreciated that and that those pics and videos helped them when they were confined, shielding, which made me feel a bit better, at least something postive had come out of it, however little. My photos went past the 21,000 uploads mark on my Flickr during Lockdown, and my daily views shot up as people were stuck inside, often looking online for diversion, so I hope those too helped some people pass the long, Lockdown days.

Books Are Back

We’re still in the early easing of restrictions here, on guard, they could change if more infections appear, but let us hope not. I am back to work, we can let people in – carefully – to our bookstore once more, which is wonderful. Two of our very young readers even dressed up in costumes for their first visit in months, which made us happy. Things are still so uncertain, many places will simply not re-open, those that have will have to struggle and adapt to new ways of doing things, but at least we are back.

The Swan Family

I normally keep an eye out for the regular breeding pair of swans we have on the nearby Union Canal, especially in spring when they have their cygnets. This year being furloughed for so long during Lockdown, with a single permitted daily exercise walk the only thing I could do outside the house, I had more of an opportunity to walk that way with the camera, and capture photos of them, from the small, fluffball stage of a couple of weeks old, to now, where they are rapidly growing to a similar size to their mother (Papa Swan is rather larger!), so I thought I would post a sequence of pics of this year’s cygnets to show how they have grown in the last few months.

Swan Family 08

Swan Family 09

Vid - Swan Family

Swan Family 024

This is our 2020 cygnets when very small – and supercute! I always love seeing them every year, but this year with the grim reality of Lockdown, the isolation and every threatening stress and depression, the magic and beauty of nature became all the more important, a wonderful escape as I took my once a day allowed exercise walk during the Lockdown (and of course where I go walking, the camera goes too).

Swan Family 037

Swan Family 042

Vid - Swans Feeding

My friend who runs the Union Canal Swans Twitter and Instagram is so known to the parent swans they let her feed their babies each year, the short video above is her feeding them some porridge (being Scottish swans they love a bit of porridge!)

Swan Family 080

Sleeping on the grass by the side of the canal

Swan Family 081

Swans Family 102

You can see how much larger they are by this point.

Swans Family 103

Papa Swan shaking it all out.

Swans Family 108

Quick close up portrait before they slipped back into the water after resting on the banking.

Vid - Swans Taking a Stroll

I love that slap-slap-slap of those big, webbed feet on the wet towpath!!!