December 4th, 2014

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"Why Do they Dig So Deep? It's Only Beneath the Surface - Why Do they Dig So Deep?"

Today is the tenth anniversary of my last meeting with my father, who died in the small hours of 5th December, 2004. That was obviously pretty significant for him, but it also started a chain of events that was to change my own life very fundamentally, and more than once. I think the best tribute I can pay (not being much of a hand at speechifying) is to link to two existing entries, which give small flavour of him.

Here is the story of his ill-fated solo cycling tour of Europe in the summer of 1939.

And here is his one published foray into fiction (to the best of my knowledge), a story written after the War and looking back at one hot and steamy corner of it.

Finally, here is a two part interview he did, I'd guess in the early '90s. I believe it was for a collection of interviews his interlocutor was making on the subject of inspiration, and he begins by talking about that subject, but covers a lot of ground by the end, from pottery, to Quaker meetings, to healing, to the way he became a schoolteacher. This is characteristic of the way he talked in later life, before he declined into dementia, and I'm very glad to have it.
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The Mahou Shoujo Must Go On 9 (Madoka and Me)

Living in two times at once is a common experience, right? I mean, it’s not just me? I hope not, or this post will look kind of weird – or weirder than it would have.

I first saw Madoka earlier this year, having stumbled across the DVD. Living in the UK, where Crunchyroll is unheard of (except in bakeries), I don’t think I could have watched when it was first broadcast (from January to April 2011) even if I’d known of its existence. In recent months, however, I’ve read archives of various “real-time” fan discussions, and that’s given me a sense of how it was received at the time, at least by the kinds of people who frequent discussion sites. More generally, meditating on Madoka has allowed the show to assume a kind of ghostly presence in my memory, filling the space in early 2011 where it “ought” to be. Those were eventful months, in my own life and in Japan’s, and the effect is unsettling.

At that time, after years of increasingly fraught indecision, I was slowly coming to accept that I needed to transition, a prospect I dreaded because of what it might mean for my relationships with my family and with H, to whom I was engaged (and who had been the helpless and distressed witness of my own distress for several years). On 15th January, two weeks into broadcast, while Madoka and Sayaka were still hesitating over their decision to take the dangerous and irrevocable step of becoming magical girls, I visited a gender specialist in London. (fjm came to hold my hand, for which I will always be grateful.) I emerged with my nearly-resolution finally made. A few days later, on the 20th, I went to Dublin to see H, and tell her. Though we stayed in touch for 18 months before she cut off contact, and even finished a book we were writing together, I haven't seen her since.

That same weekend, over in Mitakihara City, Mami Tomoe was decapitated.

A few days later, on the 26th January, I was at Diana Wynne Jones’s house, with her agent and the publisher David Fickling, and the four of us were planning out the book that would become Reflections. Diana was dying, though none of us knew then how quickly it would happen, and we arranged for me to come back and do an interview with her on 15th February, which we suspected would be her last.

Two days after that, Sayaka Miki visited her talented friend Kyousuke in hospital and used her one wish, becoming a magical girl so that he could recover from his illness - foolishly, as it turned out. As she commented in voiceover (possibly from beyond the grave): "Now that I think about it, I really didn't know anything back then. Neither what it meant to pray for a miracle..... nor the price of one."

Ah, Sayaka, I’ve always identified with you more than with the other girls, and now I think I know why. It’s not just that we share certain character traits and habits of thought (that fatal tendency to black-and-white thinking – sound familiar?); it’s also to do with your situation. Your naïve euphoria just after you contracted with Kyuubey? I recognize that too well. Your constant checking of yourself for signs of “regret”? Your feeling that you are doomed to lose all chance of love because you yourself are no longer quite "human"? Your gradual withdrawal into stubborn isolation, clinging to ideals not because they inspire you any more but because nothing else justifies your existence? Oh yes. It is very hard to watch.

In the last week of February, the same week Sayaka succumbed to despair and became a witch, I told my children.

Two weeks later, the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, killing 16,000 people. Here was a tragedy that put (and puts) my own troubles into a very sharp perspective, and I felt it as such. But national tragedies are compact of individual tragedies, and something poliphilo said at that time stuck with me. He was describing a news report: “The TV commentator very kindly pointed out what we might otherwise have missed - that there were cars moving on the soon to be flooded roads - and - barely visible, ghostly, making very little headway - a tiny figure running...”

Amongst the tsunami’s many effects was the suspension of the broadcast of Madoka, with ten episodes of the 12-episode series shown. I think there were several reasons for this, but one was the fact that the eleventh episode was to show Mitakihara City under threat from a deadly typhoon.

Those final two episodes would not be broadcast for another six weeks. In the meantime, Diana was taken to St Peter’s Hospice. I visited her there several times in her final days. I read her the transcript of the interview, and she approved. On one occasion she said, “They tell me I’m dying,” and I wish now (and wished then) I’d been able to say something better than what I did, which was “I’m very sorry to hear it.” I had no wish to grant. She died on the 26th March, and I wrote her obituary.

Eventually, on Good Friday, Madoka came to save all magical girls from despair, and not a moment too soon.

Yes, taking one thing with another I’m glad I didn’t watch Madoka at the time. It was far too close to home, in all sorts of ways. But the ghost-memory of doing so has become a part of the meaning of the show for me, and of course one way that I remember the things that were happening to me, then. I think that’s normal for great art.

And here I’m going to take a break from my Madoka posts, though with no guarantee that there won’t be a later flare-up. Yes, yes, I know that at just 13,000 words these posts have barely scratched the surface, and of course some of the most important aspects – notably all the visual aspects of the show – I’ve left pretty much untouched. But I feel less confident writing about visual things – and besides, I’d like to leave myself something to come back to.