Thursday, 28 August 2014

And The Winner Is...The Nightmare of Zbigniew Rybczynski

I was having lunch earlier this week with a couple of friends of mine. It was a great chance for a catch-up, and, at some point, the subject turned to my writing. One friend had recently read and (thank goodness) enjoyed, Saving Grace Devine. The other friend asked if there might be a film in the offing? Would I even like that?

Would I? Just wrap me up in brown cardboard and post me to Hollywood. Yes! Yes! Yes! I suspect most novel writers would have a similar (if not quite so manic) reaction. If that genuine offer came up, I’d be standing there, pen poised, ready to sign the contract – after I’d consulted a specialist lawyer of course!

Through all my years of writing, I’ve often mused on what it would be like to see my characters up there on the big screen. I’ve frequently ‘cast’ my stories. Suffice it to say that, if my dreams had come to fruition, Meryl Streep wouldn’t have had a minute to call her own for the past twenty-five to thirty years. Inevitably, I suppose, my fantasies have then wandered off into the stratosphere. You now the sort of thing. I have written the screenplay of my novel. It has been a critical and box office success. Now it’s Oscar night.

Picture it. The auditorium is packed with the great and good of the film industry. The award is for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay. Liam Neeson (it has to be, don’t ask me why), opens that shiny gold envelope. In his soft Irish brogue, he announces:

“And the winner is…Catherine Cavendish for…”

The audience goes wild. They clap. Stamp their feet. I cannot believe it. People I don’t know are hugging me. Gosh, is that really Robert de Niro? Then I’m up on stage, holding that naked gold statue, and vowing to never wash the cheek Liam Neeson has just kissed. Ah, such is the stuff dreams are made of (or something like that). I finish my gracious acceptance speech without a stumble or a flood of tears. More applause as I exit the stage.

Of course, my fantasy is of the perfect Oscar night. As many people will attest, it is not always such plain sailing. Even if you are a winner.

Take the case of Zbigniew Rybczynski.


You know, the winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1983 for his groundbreaking eight minute film, Tango.

Oh that Zbigniew Rybczynski!

The presenter that night – Kristy McNichol – must have been praying his name wouldn’t come up. It did. She did her valiant best to pronounce it. She finally gave up with ““Zbigniewski Sky.” If only that was the worst of it. But the Law Unto Sod took over and it was downhill fast from there.

Up onto stage, came the, somewhat impoverished, Zbigniewski, dressed in poor quality Tuxedo and sneakers, and accompanied by a translator. He started his speech. The translator translated from his native Polish. “Distinguished members of the Academy, ladies and gentlemen, I made this short film so I will speak very short. I feel honoured to receive this award. I am dreaming that someday I will speak longer from this place…”

At that moment the orchestra started to play the Looney Tunes theme.

“No, no,” the hapless animator pleaded, as McNichol, assisted by Matt Dillon, tried to escort him off stage.

“He has important message,” said his translator.

Rybczynski kissed an astonished McNichol, who backed away from him. He then continued with his “important message”.

“And on the occasion of the film like Gandhi, which will portray Lech Walesa in solidarity.”


Well, that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. Rybczynski went outside to have a smoke, still clutching his Oscar. When he tried to get back in, the guard blocked his way. He simply wouldn’t believe that this poorly dressed man could be an Academy Award winner, even though Zbig brandished his Oscar at him. A scuffle ensued and the police were called. According to one report, the director said, “American pig! I have the Oscar!” although whether that was before or after he tried to kick the police officer in the groin is unclear.

These days, Rybczynski can afford better suits – and probably shoes too. He has gone on to make a catalogue of experimental short films and music videos for such luminaries as The Pet Shop Boys, Art of Noise, Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono among many others.

He has also learned to speak English.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

A Ghost In The Machine?

 I was having dinner with a friend of mine recently and we got onto the subject of strange incidents we had experienced involving a range of electrical applicances. Not so much a case of Deus ex machina but rather of a ‘ghost in the machine’.

Sue, my friend, had been quite unnerved at the strange antics of her TV. Her husband had gone to bed early one night and she stayed up to watch a programme – part of a series she was following.  Suddenly, the volume started to increase. Louder and louder. She pressed the volume control, but to no avail. Still the sound grew louder, until she was sure it would wake not only her husband but the neighbours as well.

She depressed the on/off switch. Nothing happened.  Still the TV blared. Her husband came downstairs. He tried switching it off. Nothing.

“Probably the batteries,” he said. True, TVs play up in all sorts of ways if the batteries are low.

He unplugged the TV at the mains. It went off, but a troubled Sue didn’t sleep very well that night.

The next morning, the TV worked fine. There was nothing wrong with the batteries. Neither my friend nor her husband can explain what happened the night before.

I have had weird experiences with TVs doing all sorts of strange things, seemingly all by themselves. Some years ago, I sat and watched my TV remote control, which was next to me, start flashing its red operational light while the volume steadily increased. I picked it up. Like Sue, I tried to lower the volume. It didn’t respond, although at least it stopped getting any louder, and, after a few more seconds, the red operational light went off.

Somebody suggested interference from another remote, or from a taxi or emergency vehicle radio signal. Fine, except where I lived then was nowhere near either possible influence. I don’t believe remotes can operate through brick walls. and taxis and emergency vehicles usually travel on roads. We were some distance away from any. Again, batteries weren’t the issue, and it never happened again. Surely if radio interference had somehow been responsible, it wouldn’t have been a one off event.

Around four or five years ago, we came home to find the TV switched on and lights on in the living room. The TV we had then would default to the terrestrial BBC1 channel and would have to be switched over to digital, using a freeview box. It was an automatic thing for us to do just that as soon as we switched TV on. It would then stay happily adjusted until we switched it off. But on this occasion, the TV was still on the BBC terrestrial channel. So we knew for certain we had not left it switched on. Besides, I remembered turning the TV off in broad daylight when the lights weren’t on!

But spooky events involving appliances aren’t restricted to TVs in our flat, which has known a whole range of unexplained activity.

One odd event occurred one Saturday. I was in the living room, reading. In the kitchen, the washing machine was nearing the end of its drying cycle. I needed something from the cupboard above it, so I went into the kitchen, leaned up against the washer/dryer and retrieved what I needed. I left the machine to it and returned to the living room.

 Some time later, I returned to the kitchen to empty the machine. I stopped dead and stared. The washing powder dispenser tray was pulled out as far as it could go. I checked it and, even the vibration of the machine on its fast spin cycle couldn’t have given it the extra tug needed to pull it out this far. Not only that, the washer/dryer had already completed its spins when I had been in the kitchen earlier. I had leaned up against the machine, my body resting against this very tray. It certainly wasn’t pulled out then.

Three or four years after this event, I am still unable to explain it. It has never happened again.

Plenty of other things have though…

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ouija - A Warning To The Curious...


 Ouija Boards. Harmless bit of fun? Or something more sinister?

 I have certainly had a scary experience with a homemade variety, many years ago, in my misspent youth. As a result, I will never go near them again. But more of that later.

My mother tells a story of when she and some ATS friends, during World War II, decided they were going to have a bit of fun and set up their own homespun Ouija board, using a pack of Lexicon cards and a thick glass tumbler. Each of them placed one finger, lightly on the glass. It worked almost immediately. At first they asked it relatively mundane questions and received predictable answers, but then, out of the blue, the glass suddenly started shooting around the board, circling faster and faster. Mum said something felt different about the glass. Up until then, she could easily have believed one of them could have been manipulating it, but now, it was as if the glass had a mind of its own.
 Then it started to spell something out. Just one word that struck fear into all of them.


They stared at each other for a few moments until one brave soul (not my mother, she was too scared) asked, “Who?”

Suddenly the glass shot out from under their fingers and across the table, coming to rest in front of a quiet young woman called Desiree. The others looked at her in open-mouthed horror, but she laughed it off. “Silly game”.

Two weeks later, Desiree deliberately rode her bicycle into the path of the London express train.

She had been one for keeping her personal life very much to herself and it was only after her death that her friends learned how violent and unhappy her marriage had been. She came from a well to do family and her marriage to a young man from another well connected family had been presumed since the two of them were children. She had done what her parents insisted upon and married him. He had a drink problem and regularly beat her. In her world, divorce was unthinkable. She could see no way out.

Could she have thrown the glass at herself? Maybe as some last ditch, but too subtle, cry for help? The young women considered it, but it seemed impossible owing to the angle at which she was sitting and the position of her lone finger on the glass. We will, of course, never know, but neither Mum nor any of her friends ever played with an ouija again.

 I had known of this story for maybe ten years, but still I had to have my own experience, didn’t I? Two female work colleagues and I did just as Mum and her friends had done and used a lexicon pack, plus postcards with ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Goodbye’ on them. Needing a fair amount of space and lacking a table big enough, we set up on the (thankfully clean) floor of the Ladies’ washroom. We placed a heavy glass water tumbler in the centre and each positioned one finger lightly on the glass. Giggling with nervous anticipation, we started.

My colleague Mary asked the usual question, “Is there anyone there?”

The glass began to move, gently circling the board.

Mary again piped up, “Who are you?”

Now it started to spell out something, until the name “Richard” emerged. Although a relatively common name, this rang no bells with any of us.

I gained a little confidence now. “Do you have a message for one of us?”

The glass moved to “Yes”.

“Who is your message for?”

“M A R Y”

My other colleague, Josie, and I looked at Mary. She had gone a little pale but nevertheless asked the inevitable, “What is your message for me?”

Nothing. The glass didn’t move. We sat in silence for a few moments, exchanging glances. Then Mary asked, “Are you still there?”

The glass skimmed around the floor, pausing at letters and moving off so rapidly it was hard to keep up.  The words were mainly four letter expletives – and they were directed at Mary. This did not feel the same as the seemingly innocuous Richard. Under my finger, I felt the glass pulling away. Josie said she felt the same. So did Mary.

Random words now. ‘Devil’, ‘Satan’, ‘Evil’. But then it spelled out, ‘Devil F***s Mary’. She let out a scream, took her finger off the glass and backed away.  The glass pulled even stronger. It tugged itself away from Josie and I - who were sitting next to each other - hurled itself across the floor and smashed against the far wall. The impact shattered the glass. We stared at it like idiots for a minute or more and I am certain I did not imagine the chill in the room. We all experienced it. That was the first and last time I ever messed around with an ouija.

Oh I know, mass hallucination. One of us must have pushed the glass. There are a myriad of perfectly sane and logical explanations but, you weren’t there. You didn’t feel that glass tug away from us. You didn’t see the way it shot across the room, as it someone had hurled it with all their strength. This was a heavy Duralex glass. The sort you could often drop on the floor and they would virtually bounce. At the time it made its dramatic exit, just two of us had one finger each, lightly, on the glass. One was me and I know I wasn’t moving it at any time. The other was Josie. Trust me, it would have taken far more than one of her fingers, plus a degree of skill in the art of throwing, for her to have achieved that result.

You only have to tap in ‘ouija boards’ in your favourite search engine to find a whole host of cautionary tales, warning people not to use them. Some have had far more violent and frightening outcomes than I have. Whether users really do tap into something supernatural or not, it’s clear that some highly undesirable results can – and do – occur.

If you’re still determined to go ahead and ‘have a bit of fun’, nothing I say will stop you.

But don’t ever say I didn’t warn you...