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Hollie Williams

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Random Review Time – La La Land

By | Hollie Williams, Lifestyle, TV/Film | No Comments

I think it’s time to take a break from my usual chat about disability and have what I have christened one of my HRRs, that is a Holly’s Random Review. This is when I use my blog to give my thoughts on a show, film or other piece of entertainment that I’ve seen. I do this normally when it’s been a big treat or something I have particularly enjoyed or just when I haven’t found a news story that had piqued my interest. So I have decided to give my opinion on the film I’ve just seen: La La Land

La La Land (PG-13)

This modern take on the classic 1940s Hollywood musicals follows the love story between frustrated jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling) and waitress and wannabee actress Mia (Emma Stone) as they struggle to build and maintain their love affair while at the same time pursuing their individual careers in tinsel town. The movie has been showered with acclaim by critics who seem enraptured by director Damien Chazelle’s attempt to take the genre in new directions for the modern era but personally I found the work problematic. While the film starts of on a sunny, upbeat note with a number in which drivers stuck in traffic on the Los Angeles highway jump out of their cars to sing and dance, followed closely by another featuring our heroine getting ready for a night on the town with her girlfriends. The film quickly sags into a tone more fitting to an semi-serious examination of modern relationships with large periods of realistic dialogue and acting during which it is easy to forget you are watching a musical at all. I don’t have anything against realistic drama, though it is not a genre I particularly enjoy, nor am I against heightened realities on film as long as the hyped-up style is constant throughout the piece. But the two married together is very jarring for a watcher of modern musicals, who perhaps needs the cartoon burlesque factor of Chicago or Hairspray or the overblown melodrama of the screen versions of Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables to feel comfortable with characters bursting into song at any moment. It is almost too comical to have our leads exchanging natural dialogue about their lives and dreams one minute and then floating up to dance on the ceiling the next.

Of course Chazelle is trying to reference something great here, looking back to the great ‘put on a show’ shows of MGM such as Singin’ in the Rain or A Star Is Born. But while audiences of the time were happy to believe the puffed dream of Hollywood glamour, viewers in the 21st century are perhaps a little more savvy as to what goes on behind the silver screen, and trying to address this more sophisticated view on the world Chazelle perhaps loses something. Seb and Mia are very modern characters with all the flaws, hang-ups and ego drives of modern performers trying to be a success, they behave and are played like a hundred other romantic leads in other comedies and dramas. The performances by Gosling and Stone are subtle and not overblown so when they do suddenly burst into song out of the blue its seems frankly bizarre. Maybe if everything had been ramped up to ten with violent declarations of love and hysterical sobbing the addition of songs wouldn’t seem so out of place. But La La Land wants to have its cake and eat it, being both naturalistic for long stretches and then diving half-heartedly into fantasy when it remembers it isn’t simply a drama. The setting is very much a Hollywood version of Hollywood; back lots and palm trees, where the seedier side of struggle and failure is only hinted at, a Hollywood that perhaps did exist once upon a time but is unbelievable  in 2017.

The overall atmosphere of La La Land is that of a unenthusiastic smugness. The film gives the impression that its doing something deep and marvellous while in fact no-one seems to be trying that hard. The songs are melodic and hummable but easily forgettable once the credits roll which is bizarre as Gosling’s character is meant to have a passion for jazz. Likewise, Gosling himself does a passable job in the role. He can hold a tune but that’s no challenge as the melodies are so marshmallow light that they can be spoke-sung without much effort, although his whole demeanour gives of the air of someone who isn’t really comfortable as a song and dance man. Whenever he performs, you are given the distinct impression that he finds it all rather embarrassing and would be much happier if this was just a straight drama. As for Stone, the word to describe her, and so much else in this film is ‘nice’.  She looks very pretty crying in the close-ups and her voice is sugary and a lot better than some past actors and actresses roped into the rebirth of the big hit musical (see Richard Gere in Chicago). But what the film highlights is that these days a big name doesn’t guarantee the skills needed to carry off a musical performance and for those who have seen real singers and dancers who have to come up to scratch night after night on stage, the flaws show. This is especially the case with much of the dancing which seems lacklustre and walked-through, making you realise just how much effort and skill is put in to something like say Strictly. Because Chazelle has borrowed so much from the greats of the past; Astaire, Kelly, every number leaves you with the reminder that it’s all been done many years before and so much better.

What makes La La Land differ from those golden movies of the past is that it lacks heart. I don’t have a problem with it creating a highly false edifice so long as there are some true emotions behind it. The problem is the story of Mia and Seb’s very modern romance doesn’t seem to fit within the reality the film tries to create.

2/5 Overhyped and boring. Nice background film for grandmas.

A man starring at a TV in a dark room

ABA isn’t Always the Way to Unlock Autism

By | Disability, Hollie Williams, Lifestyle, TV/Film | No Comments

BBC4 had a fascinating documentary this week on a new and controversial treatment for dealing with children with autism. Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a system of teaching started in the 1960s which stems from a reward and punishment approach that was developed from experiments with animals. It claims to reduce unwanted traits in children with the condition through a system of drawing attention to good behaviour and ignoring or not responding to negative actions. While this approach simply sounds at first to be nothing more than good parenting, ABA has split the autistic community down the middle. Many parents who put their children through ABA programmes swear by its effectiveness. But those who believe that autism isn’t so much a disability but a different way of the brain working disagree.

Watching the two camps articulately argue their cases, it is hard not to fit them into the old opposing social versus medical model of disability and like always I can see real validation in both points of view. I do not claim to be an expert in autism, it is one of the disabilities I find hardest to understand, although ironically I am told by close family members that my personality shares many traits  recognised as symptoms of autism (I sometimes struggle with social cues and communication and am prone to obsessive thoughts and behaviours). I have friends who have been classed as being on the milder end of the autistic spectrum. What strikes me is that autism IS a spectrum of intensity of behaviour, just as Cerebral Palsy is a spectrum of physical and mental ability. No two people are the same.

I can fully understand the intense frustration for parents especially when they struggle to gain any meaningful communication from their children. It must be a very heart-breaking and lonely place to be, and the desperation to try anything that might work must be immense. But, as with the case of PETO in the treatment of those with disabilities in the 1980s, I would think it would be very hard to judge whether a child’s ability to develop skills such as language are indeed down to a course of intensive repetitive treatments, that can last for eight hours a day, or whether they would have picked up them naturally. Practitioners of ABA claim that the tantrums and adverse behaviour displayed by autistic children at the start of a programme when ‘unhelpful’ traits and habits are denied them will lessen over time as they no longer receive a response. But  the question has to be asked how long is it acceptable to leave a child in distress before they learn that their behaviour is getting them nowhere. We know now the autistic brain is wired differently; that the channels of perception of information from the outside world take in stimulus in a way that is different from a ‘normal’ brain. The filters that many of us take for granted to block out much of the data flooding into us every moment of every day simply aren’t there, and many of the repetitive ‘ticks’ and habits are a self-formed method of comforting  and a way of focusing the brain on one thing to form some sort of mental order in their world. It is many of these ticks that ABA works towards removing because they are seen by the wider society as unacceptable. I was struck when watching the programme by a scene that showed a young Swedish boy repetitively turning the pages of a book back and forth and his ABA therapist saying to camera this was not ‘productive behaviour’. While this maybe true, the question must be raised as to who does this behaviour actually hurt and whether, if the repetition gives the child comfort,  does it have a purpose beyond that which we can understand? Are we, as a society,  prepared to spend immense amounts of time and energy to mould autistic children’s minds into a set of pre-agreed social behaviours against their mental comfort and well-being? Is such behaviour on the part of adults a bit abusive when it is basically breaking someone’s will to make them become something they are fundamentally not? Many autistic adults gradually learn to lessen their ticks in public settings to conform but still maintain their way of seeing and reacting to the world as a fundamental part of who they are as a person. In fact, there are those who use their ability to focus and take in immense detail to achieve phenomenal feats in areas such as maths and art. Is it right to ‘cure’ such a way of thinking?

It is hard to knock ABA  when you see the case studies  in which it works. When you witness a child go through the programme and develop and improve you do feel good for not only them but for the relief seen in their parents. But any achievement comes at a cost. A cost of time and effort put in by parents, child and teachers to get the child to that goal and also the loss of seeing where the child’s autistic mind would naturally lead them. By making a child always have to submit to a behaviour decided by an adult in order to get approval and rewards rather than loving them for the person they are, you are perhaps leading them down a road of self doubt where they don’t develop the important ability to decide for themselves and say no.

George Osbourne

There is only so much you can take Mr Osborne

By | Disability, Hollie Williams, Lifestyle | No Comments

Written by Holly Williams

Well it has certainly been a lively week in politics and in what seems to be becoming a nasty habit. Disabled people have once again been brought into the limelight of much of the Government’s cost cutting with Chancellor George Osborne announcing in Thursday’s budget plans to save £13billion a year by slashing payments for care aids such as walking sticks, wheelchairs, hand rails and other equipment that many people rely on to deal with basic needs such as washing and going to the toilet. This latest action is just the most recent step in a long line of measures by the Conservative party that seem to solely exist to punish and persecute the most vulnerable members of our society, which has also included the creation of the bedroom tax that penalises many disabled people for having necessary space in their homes for carers or equipment and brutal reductions to the PIPs benefit scheme that has seen a severe drop in the funds many people use to pay for support to help them live full and active lives.

Is it any wonder that so many disabled people feel victimised by this Government over the past eight years? The focus on money saving targeted at those in our society who need the most assistance and protection is now bordering on nothing more than blatant prejudice. Maybe there is something of an echo back to the days of the Thatcherite 1980s still hanging over the mind-set of the Tory party, the memory of the old ‘get on your bike and find work’ Norman Tebbitt attitude that those who don’t contribute to society financially must be given short shrift until they do.

But the reality is that the individuals who suffer the most from these cuts are on the whole unable to work and those who could possibly earn a wage are finding it harder to do so because the basic support that allows them to engage in society, simply get out of bed and dressed in the morning is being taken away from them. Perhaps the attitude of the Conservative party is even more cynical than that, perhaps they are using disabled people as their scapegoat because they are aware that they are a group whose voice still goes unheard, a minority small and powerless enough but who soak up a significant percentage of the country’s funds that their pockets can be picked to make up the national deficit. It can’t help feel like a smack in the face to learn that the savings made by the most recent rounds of cuts more or less equal the tax bonuses being offered to middle class families. What is even more hurtful is the knowledge that the Prime Minister David Cameron was the father to a disabled child and many believed that this factor would make him more sympathetic to the plight of disabled people and their families, when the opposite appears to be true. Perhaps the fact that Cameron comes from an highly affluent, privately educated family means he was able to finance his son’s care himself and has little knowledge of how hard an ordinary British family has to fight to provide essential assistance that disabled people so vitally need.

But as physics teach us, when you push against something you’re bound to find the point of resistance and it would appear that with the cuts to disability provision , that point is coming very close. The ripples of Osborne’s budget are already reverberating back towards him with blows coming from very close to home. Friday night saw the resignation of Work and Pensions Minister Ian Duncan Smith in a open letter to David Cameron in which he calls the budget cuts a ‘compromise too far’. But this is a man, you remember, who oversaw many of the most severe penalties against the Government support of disabled people so one does have to question whether this change in attitude is down to a wounded conscience or a political play in his own career. With the tide of outrage against these cuts growing in volume, is it possible that Duncan Smith is simply getting out while he still can in the hope of retaining a small shred of dignity? His outcry against his colleagues may look like a flag of hope to many fighting the cuts but I find it very hard to believe it will mark any state of real change of attitude by the Conservatives towards disabled people. Until I see real positive action and change in current policy, I won’t be holding my breath.

The author Holly Williams

Writing, Fantasy, Disability and Me by Holly Williams

By | Disability, Hollie Williams, Lifestyle | One Comment

When I met Jenny, one of the owners of this site, through the firm where I work and she asked me if I wanted to contribute to this blog, it put me in a bit of a quandary. Of course I was keen and flattered to be asked but where to start? What angle should I come at the topic of disability from? As a writer that has always been a sticky point for me, finding the first sticking point to launch myself into something. So after much pondering I decided what better place to start than writing itself, why I do it and what I do it about. And like all good stories mine starts a long time ago.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Holly who, because of some complications at her birth, was born with Cerebral Palsy. She was a very bright, if somewhat stubborn and disobedient, child who wanted to do everything she saw other children do. Her parents loved her very much and having been told by doctors that she would be ‘little more than a vegetable’ decided to stimulate her eager young mind in every way they could think of as they were sure that their daughter would prove the so-called ‘experts’ wrong, (they were quite stubborn and disobedient themselves!) So with the help of Holly’s devoted grandparents they set about filling her life with as much information, fun and education as they could. They took her on countless day trips everywhere from stately homes to the seaside, enrolled her in mainstream Brownies and played endless educational games with her. But although Holly’s childhood was as stimulating and as fun as any child could wish it, she was still very aware how different she was to other children and desperately frustrated. Monstrous tantrums would erupt when her damaged body wouldn’t do what she wanted it to or drawings would be ruined by her clumsy hands. What she desired most in the world was to do something that wasn’t affected by her disability. And so, in desperation her parents turned to books. They read to her, as much and as often as they could. In the car, in the bath, waiting for doctors’ appointments, as they attempted (mostly unsuccessfully) to feed her breakfast and when they tried (VERY unsuccessfully) to get her to sleep at night. They read everything and anything that was suitable from Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton to the Brothers Grimm and Childrens’ Encyclopaedias. And she adored it.

Thus begun a romance and love affair that has lasted my entire life. Words and stories became my favourite toys and dearest friends. They didn’t break when I played with them or run away or point like other children. Soon I grew bored with just hearing the stories my parents and grandparents told me and started making up my own. I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember (apart from one day when I was about six when I put my Dad’s slippers on my hands and decided I was going to be a dog!) By the age of 12 I had written my first book ‘Animal High’ about a school for disabled and non-disabled animals which was published for charity, the proceeds going to the special school I attended. I took a short break in my teenage years to sit my GCSEs and A levels before leaving education at 18 to start my first novel. I decided to write about disability, (they do say write what you know). I sat down at my computer, opened up Word and…Nothing! Well not nothing, a few pages of various stories about special schools and residential homes but nothing that made want me to keep writing.

Now can I tell you a secret? Promise you won’t judge? I find writing about disability boring. Not all the time of course, I wouldn’t be on this site if I did but a full length novel? It hit me why I had such bad writer’s block. I didn’t want to be a writer who wrote stories about disability, after all, I didn’t read books about disability. I wanted to be a writer who wrote gripping, thrilling fantasy adventures that just happened to have characters with disabilities right at the centre. Now you may not think that there’s much connection between disability and fantasy literature, after all there aren’t any disabled students at Hogwarts (I have a MAJOR issue with that by the way. Every creed and race shown learning magic but not one wheelchair, what gives?) But if you’re a massive fantasy and mythology nerd like me, you’d be surprised what crops up.

Hephaestus, the Greek god of the forge was depicted as having wasted legs and throughout history there has been a long tradition of people with disabilities such as blindness and physical deformities being seen as possessing or being victims of magical powers. The saying ‘I have a hunch’ originally comes from the belief that those with spinal deformities had psychic gifts. The term ‘changling’, a baby who was stolen by the fairy folk and replaced for one of their own, is believed to come from people trying to find explanations for numerous impairments from epilepsy to autism. Of course, such folk tales were usually far from flattening and such legends were quite often used to persecute and portray disabled people as ‘evil’ or ‘unnatural’, but the very fact they exist fascinates me.

My first fantasy novel ‘The Jersey Guardian’ was published in 2005 and over the following years I completed the trilogy with ‘A Warlock In Jersey’ and ‘The Ghosts Of Helier.’ The stories focus around a fourteen-year-old from South London named Jessica Kent who discovers that her family are fated to be the guardians of Jersey and protect the isle from witchcraft and evil. If you read my books (please read my books, there’s a link to buy them at the bottom of the page), you might be surprised to find that there are no characters who have clearly recognisable disabilities but that doesn’t mean the themes and problems that have affected me through my life in regards to my disability aren’t featured at the core of the stories. While it’s true that the main threat faced by my heroes comes from the supernatural, they also have to tackle what it means when you or someone you love has a physical impairment and learning difficulty. It’s one thing to seek out and destroy ancient magic but how do you face the challenges of knowing you’re not as ‘normal’ as the rest of society and face the harsh judgements of others, even those within your own family?

In traditional fantasy literature where the hero has to summon inter strength to rise to vanquish every obstacle, it’s hard to raise the topic of disability when most impairments have to be endured rather than cured. I don’t claim to have totally succeeded in creating disabled heroes and role-models that were lacking when I was a child. I’m not arrogant enough about my talent to make that statement. Let’s face it, who, disabled or not, wouldn’t want a magic wand or potion that would make them happy, healthy and rich. That’s why fantasy exists in the first place, to create in the mind what does not exist in the real world. All I’ve tried to do is create a cast of characters who are interesting, brave, funny, loving, selfish, cunning, foolish, bigoted, forgiving, and enjoyable enough for the reader to stay with for 300 or so pages. It just so happens that in my stories one or two of them might not be considered as ‘able-bodied’. Holly Williams is an author, poet, artist, performer, graphic designer and disability campaigner.

Her books are available through this link.

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