Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Hot Fuzz

Your baby's 10 days overdue so what film do you watch when your wife starts getting contractions. Hot Fuzz obviously, the perfect early labour entertainment (we didn't start there of course, we warmed up with a game of Scrabble first). From the same team that brought us Shaun of the Dead (and the fantastic TV series Spaced) it follows the fortunes of top cop Nicholas Angel as he is posted to the rural village of Sandford after his superior performance in London was beginning to make everyone else look bad. The award winning village has never seen a murder, but Angel discovers that the rate of fatal 'accidents' is extremely high. Whilst there he is partnered up with Danny Butterman the son of the local Police Inspector who has a weakness for action films like Bad Boys 2 and Point Break. It is these macho buddy movies which the film pastiches with hilarious precision, many shots and scenes copied exactly. It is a funny thing to watch a film and break off every 10 minutes or so to help your wife with her breathing but despite this slightly disjointed approach I loved the film. It's incredibly silly, packed full of references and comedy turns from some great British talent (watch out for a hilarious mumbling cop played by Karl Johnson) but above all, and most importantly when considering the words 'British' and 'Comedy' together, it's very, very funny.


Sunday, 28 October 2007

A quick word on the The Sopranos finale

I have written before about The Sopranos (here) but was aware at the time that the series finale had yet to air in the UK so I decided to keep schtum. But with the episode going out tonight on E4 I can finally say what a fantastic finish to the series it was. Now, you may not be feeling that way yourself right now, I was certainly a little bemused the first time I watched it, even thinking for a moment that something had gone wrong with the TV but everything you need to know is there.

But before we get to the final scene let's talk about the episode as a whole. Starting with a shot of Tony looking like a corpse in a coffin is a pretty bold start. He is only sleeping but it sets a certain tone, don't you think? There is a storm blowing outside and a real sense that the pressure is building. The colour palette has gone very blue and muted, everyone's breath is frozen and as Tony and his crew are moving pieces in this high stakes game an incredible atmosphere of foreboding surrounds everything. The sit-down scene between Tony and New York is an amazing example of how this show has brought film style set design and lighting to the small screen; what an incredible set filled with twisted, junked metal lit beautifully with bright light and dark shadows crossing over the faces of these men who, in taught sentences, thrash out the peace. Their skin looks like dry paper, all of them freezing, their gloves only removed to shake on the deal. Brilliant stuff.

Then things are suddenly quiet. With Phil Leotardo gone, Tony rakes leaves in his back garden and looks into the bare branches of the trees as a small breeze makes them sway ever so slightly, a beautiful image, a calm before the real storm? That evening Tony and his family meet for dinner and we have the scene that has got so many tongues wagging. I am not going to get into a heated discussion about whether that is The Last Supper being visually recreated or if there is any relevance to the way they eat their onion rings. I have watched it several times now and it seems pretty clear to me what happens. When Tony and Bobby were fishing together Bobby, when talking about the end for guys like them, says 'You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?'. David Chase himself (who wanted to end the episode with no credits at all, just a black screen for 30 seconds) has recently said:

There are no esoteric clues in there. No Da Vinci Code. Everything that pertains to that episode was in that episode. And it was in the episode before that and the one before that and seasons before this one and so on. There had been indications of what the end is like. Remember when Jerry Toricano was killed? Silvio was not aware that the gun had been fired until after Jerry was on his way down to the floor. That's the way things happen: It's already going on by the time you even notice it.

Are you saying...?

I'm not saying anything. And I'm not trying to be coy. It's just that I think that to explain it would diminish it.

Need I say more?

For a slightly different take on the phenomenon go to the brilliant Stereogum where you have the opportunity to put which ever piece of music you like in place of Journey's 'Don't Stop Believing'. You can score the final scene of The Sopranos here.


By George, she's got it

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

Richard Powers' most recent novel The Echo Maker won last year's National Book Award in the US and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It tells the story of Mark, a truck driver who wakes from a coma after an accident and believes that his sister, who has returned home to nurse him, is an actually an imposter. Reeling from this rejection she contacts renowned neurologist Gerald Weber who recognising the rare Capgras Syndrome comes to investigate. It is filled with sound science, dense prose and a meticulous dissection of human life and thoughts; in other words exactly what you would expect from Powers. His writing is not to all tastes but at its best, as in The Gold Bug Variations, which combines genetics, music, and computer science, it can be some of the most invigorating and challenging writing available.

Whilst still waiting for some books to be delivered after the postal strike I have been stumbling into second hand bookshops and following my nose. On one such recce I found a copy of Powers pseudo-autobiographical novel Galatea 2.2. It concerns a certain Richard Powers who returns to his old University, after the end of a relationship with a former student, stumbling along in a state of limbo disillusioned with both reading and writing. Whilst there he meets Philip Lentz a combative computer scientist who convinces Powers to be part of an experiment. He has made a bet with fellow scientists that he can produce a computer that can perform literary criticism which is indistinguishable from that written by a human. Powers task is to 'teach' the computer.

This is very clever update of the Pygmalion myth. The various implementations of the machine develop into 'Helen' who is capable eventually of asking what sex and race she is, even what she looks like. Powers is consistently amazed at how his pupil seems to be developing consciousness, but is slow in realising that the real subject of the experiment is himself. As he introduces her to a history of literature it is her who is helping him to re-engage with the world. Told in parallel is the story of the relationship which has rendered Powers so disconnected at the start of the novel. Refered to only as 'C', theirs was an insular relationship built on the books they read together. In the present day Powers fixates on another student, this one known only as 'A', who becomes for him a new, improved version of 'C' and also the student against whom his 'Helen' will compete. All very clever as I said and that of course is the problem.

It isn't that the writing is dry or cool or clinical although on discovering that Lentz has scoliosis it is difficult to relate to Powers thinking:
'I was sorry I'd let him get under my skin. Even someone who has modeled the function of the inferior frontal gyrus might still be plagued by the monsters that gyrus modeled'.
Powers can still provide a great one-liner like:
'He looked as if he'd taken self-tanning cream orally'.
He can also write with great emotion, particularly when describing the death throes of his relationship with 'C' or the visits with Lentz to see his wife Audrey, reduced to a paranoid shell of herself by dementia. But where structure leant such strength to Gold Bug, the four notes of the music combining with the four parts of human genetic code, shedding light on each other, this novel is far less succesful, the connections between plots misfiring like faulty synapses in the brain. Picking it up each time I felt I was starting again, needing to tune my ear in to the prose. Powers melding of science and literature is bound to work better in some places than others, where this book works best is as a very imaginative way of writing about writing again when you think you can't. Through the pursuits of this fictional Powers in creating his Galatea and looking back on what has helped and shaped his writing so far, the real Powers is able to write again and bring us Galatea 2.2, inspired by the voice that commands him to 'See everything for me'.


Saturday, 27 October 2007

For those of you with cats


Thursday, 25 October 2007


You would have to be some kind of hard-hearted bastard not to enjoy this film. It's just lovely. On the streets of Dublin a guy (Glen Hansard) meets a girl (Markéta Irglová). He works in his Father's shop fixing vacuums and busking, she sells flowers and looks after her family and they're both a little lonely. Through their shared passion for music they write songs together and whilst sharing the problems of their past loves something develops between them. As far as plot goes they go into a studio and record a demo. It's shot on a shoestring budget, a little rough around the edges and one of the most charming films you will ever see. The music may not be to everyones taste but there is no doubting the genuineness of the performances, when they sing with each other they mean it (Hansard and Irglová are now a couple in real life). Dublin seems like the right setting as well, music is something that plays a huge part in the social life there and one scene where a group of musicians and singers come together for a dinner where you can eat if you sing a tune sums up that spirit perfectly.

The combination of documentary style filming with the conventions of a musical is a surprisingly effective mix, the film slowly building up its themes, some tunes earning a reprise and the whole building to a genuinely moving climax. As the weather has got a little wetter and the days a little darker I couldn't think of a better time to surrender to a little romance.


Sunday, 21 October 2007

Come Dine With Me

Reality TV - Boo. Another cooking programme - Boo. The death of culture - well no actually, it's really rather enjoyable, sorry. I don't know why it works but it does. Come Dine With Me is on Channel 4 and the basic premise is that five amateur chefs cook for each other over the course of the week, award each other marks for the evening and the winner gets £1000. The word amateur is what worried me, why would I want to watch ordinary people cooking a three course meal, especially when I consider myself a bit of a gourmand. Well, food is just one of the elements of the programme, what seems far more important is the actual hosting and that of course brings one of our national obsessions into play: class.

Oh yes, those clever programme makers have carefully selected their contestants of course and assembled a mixture of ingredients which they hope will combine into a heady stew of tasty TV (no more cooking metaphors I promise). This isn't like Holiday Showdown where two families generally try their hardest to argue and ruin a perfectly good holiday with each others prejudices, this a far more subtle and nuanced affair. First of all you have the dilemma of the host: what to cook, how to impress, what does a vegan eat (there always seems to be one contestant with special dietary needs). But the fun really starts when the guests arrive, usually as the host is still making final preparations, and start to snoop about the house. This is where we start to hear the clash of the social strata and it is often amazing to see people literally prepared to search for the skeletons in the closet. As the week develops the contestants begin to learn more and more about each other and it is fascinating to see them grapple with their first impressions and gradually get a better idea of their guests. Let's not pretend that this is a social experiment but rather than endure watching celebrity wannabees whore themselves for 5 months in the Big Brother house just spend 5 days eating dinner with some starngers and you'll learn all you need to about the people of Britain. The class thing always seems to reflect badly on those looking down. You only sound prissy when you complain that the bread was served in a chipped pyrex dish, and you just sound ignorant when you call mutton 'peasant food'.

Many contestants make the mistake of thinking that if they get everyone drunk enough then the high marks will flood in. This is a particularly bad ploy if you are cooking later in the week and tensions have already begun to build as we all know that a little too much vino in those circumstances and all hell can break loose. We have already seen one host reduced to tears as her guests had a truth telling session. We have also seen the odd stirring of lust but the first fully fledged Come Dine With Me romance has yet to bloom (unless I've missed it). The marking is interesting of course and we have already had our first scandal where one particularly repugnant contestant, Isabella, decided that she would mark everybody with either 1, 2 or 3 out of 10 so as to walk away with a grand. Boo. She was rumbled naturally and forced to mark again which thankfully lead to her coming second. Hooray.

You see, I find myself caring about who gets the £1000. After all the effort expended in the kitchen and the theatre of what happens at the table you want to see justice done. I should also mention that the programme has one of the finest purveyors of the sarcastic voice over in Dave Lamb. It's worth watching just for his withering comments alone. If your week's too busy then you can watch an omnibus on Sunday, what more could you ask for?


tales from Ackroyd

The Lambs of London
by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is an incredibly prolific writer. For the last 30 years he has averaged around a book a year (and that doesn't even include his children's books) and has made the recreation of history an area in which he dominates. After the huge success of London: The Biography he has come to be seen as one of the definitive sources for writing about the city and recently published a book about the source of the city itself Thames: Sacred River. His work is now often accompanied by a television series and with his distinctive moustache, swept back hair and soft r's he guides us through the past with an infectous enthusiasm.

The Lambs of London, set at the end of the eighteenth century, tells the story of Mary Lamb , who with her brother Charles wrote Tales From Shakespeare the famous story versions of Shakespeare's plays. Mary is also infamous for having murdered her mother with a kitchen knife, deemed to have been an act of lunacy for which she escaped punishment. Ackroyd shows how her mental state may have been agitated in the lead up to this matricide by her involvement with William Henry Ireland, a young clerk who was to become infamous himself. At the age of twenty he forged papers purportedly written by Shakespeare and even went as far as to write a 'lost' play which was performed in Drury Lane. It seems a strange decision to try and tell two such large stories in one relatively slim novel, and even to try and combine these two stories at all. Ackroyd admits that '
This is not a biography but a work of fiction. I have invented characters, and changed the life of the Lamb family for the sake of the larger narrative'. It is in fact the story of the Shakespeare papers which dominates the narrative and as a result leaves the Lamb's struggling to keep the readers attention. Ackroyd has already written brilliantly about forgery in his novel Chatterton, which with its multi layered narrative is a far superior book. It is a shame that he couldn't have brought that kind of care and attention to one or other of the stories he tries to tell in this one.


Friday, 19 October 2007


From The IT Crowd


Thursday, 18 October 2007

fluffy pink grenade

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
by Marina Lewycka

This book was given to me by a friend to read. It was an incongruous choice for him let alone me to be reading but it is an award winning book I had seen so many people reading and like Harry Potter if you want to pass judgement you need to read the damn thing.

Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.

This opening paragraph neatly sums up the plot. There is lots of fun to be had in the character of Valentina, the 'fluffy pink grenade', especially in her choice of words. Her broken english results in the baldest of insults; our narrator Nadia is a 'no-tits crow' and her father a 'crazy dog-eaten brain graveyard-deadman'. But the comedy wasn't the main thing for me (It was strictly smile-to-myself rather then laugh-out-loud), more interesting is the effect this churning of the waters has on the relationship between the two sisters Nadia and Vera, as well as the gradual unveiling of this family's sad history through the second world war. Many of these sections are quite poignant (although the neat summary at the end of the book seemed a little patronising) and show the impact of living through trauma, the stories we tell ourselves to make a coherent narrative of life during wartime.

You don't need me to say much more, you've probably read it already, quite why this book became such a bestseller I don't know but it was enjoyable enough.


Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Flags Of Our Fathers - Letters From Iwo Jima

I was genuinely impressed when I heard that an American film maker like Clint Eastwood was making two films about a wartime event, one from each perspective. The Battle of Iwo Jima was the first attack by the Americans on the Japanese Home Islands. Not only was it a vicious battle showing the tenacity of the Imperial soldiers, but it also provided one of the most iconic images of all time.

Flags of Our Fathers tells the story surrounding that picture and in particular the lives of three men who came home and toured the country as figureheads of heroism, freedom and to try and convince Americans to buy bonds to finance the war effort. It is a fractured narrative with scenes jumping from the battle on the island to the tour back home, presumably to show us the effect of war, the difficulty in assembling a coherent narrative from the memories of men who were often unwilling to talk about what had happened to them during the war. It feels however like the film has had a few too many script rewrites and been assembled from a lot of footage. About halfway through a narrator seems to appear, who is the son of one of the men, to help us get through to the end. It is shame that it doesn't quite work because a lot of the elements are there. The hot topic of propaganda in wartime, fantastic battle scenes (with Steven Spielberg as a producer would you expect anything else?) and good performances from the cast. But after an ending which seemed to go on for ever, I was left feeling very unsatisfied. It must have been a difficult thing to make a film like this with the war in Iraq still exerting its influence and one can't help but feel that this has hampered its execution.

Letters From Iwo Jima is more successful. It looks very similar of course and the music even sounds like a slightly Japanese version of the other film's score but what this picture has is structure. This is very much the story of The Battle of Iwo Jima, we see the young soldiers preparing to defend this small rock, unsure of what they will be facing in the Americans. On to the island comes General Kuribayashi, played brilliantly by Ken Watanabe, who having spent time in America himself and with a less than traditional approach to leadership has problems with his staff. At the very bottom of the pecking order is Saigo (another fantastic performance by Kazunari Ninomiya) who is saved from a beating by Kuribayashi on the day he arrives and these two men will find their paths crossing again and again as the American onslaught lays waste to the island. The performances are again superb, and with the majority of the film taking place in the warren of tunnels in which the Japanese have entrenched themselves it has some of the claustrophobic feel of Das Boot. What really shines through are the values of honour, courage, and strength as we watch this group of men struggling with the rigid structures of the military and Japanese society.

Of the over 21,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, 20,703 died and 216 were captured during the battle. The Allied forces suffered 27,909 casualties, with 6,825 killed in action. The tactical significance of the island's capture, especially given the number of casualties, is still disputed. Its value as a tool of propaganda is much clearer to see.


Tuesday, 16 October 2007

reality check

There has been a continuing rumble in the press about the BBC hoodwinking us viewers in various ways; whether it's phone-ins, documentary editing or Alan Yentob pretending to interview people. But there is one programme which seems to be getting away with murder. I am speaking of the Domestic Goddess herself Nigella Lawson. Not only has she brought us a new series which seems to consist of her 'cooking' dishes like scrambled eggs and taking other food out of packets but we are asked to swallow this all down with a load of hokum which is supposed to represent a day in the life of Ms Lawson.

Are we expected to take seriously the idea that she is often to be caught slurping her breakfast smoothie (a strange concoction of frozen banana, coffee powder and chocolate) on the number 49 bus. I could be wrong, and it may just be the fact that she's independently wealthy and in a relationship with a millionaire, but she doesn't look like the public transport type to me. Last night we had her doing the ironing in order to avoid finishing the 'work' that was approaching its deadline. Just looking at the way she handled the iron made me worry for the designer top she was 'ironing'. Best of all though was the friend who called up distraught after boyfriend trouble and was invited round to Nigella's for some chocolate cookies. After they were made we saw her friend with 'tears' in her eyes declaring that Nigella was 'right, he's not good for me, but these are' as she reached for another cookie. Dear god, who was she, and how much was she being paid to provide this reality/insight/weirdness to the programme?

Nigella needs to realise that what we like about her recipes are the frightfully middle class ingredients she unearths for us, I love her simply for introducing the ras-el-hanout spice blend into my kitchen. I don't need to see her being 'real', if I want to chuck something together I'll watch Jamie lisping all over the place, and if she continues to embarrass her daughter on TV every week I'll be on to social services.


Monday, 15 October 2007

Dragons' Den

Last night saw the welcome return of the programme which combines so many glorious elements. The contestants reduced to sweaty, gibbering wrecks, the in-fighting amongst the Dragons, Peter Jones' need to find a terrible pun to accompany his declaration of 'I'm out', and the telly wonder that is a genuine success story like Levi Roots and his Reggae Reggae Sauce. The departure of Richard Farleigh from the den was a bit of a blow for me. I had developed a fondness for the pint sized Aussie and his rapier like dissection of many people's pitches. He is replaced by James Caan (no, unfortunately not him, wow, that really would put the wind up them) who according to some newspaper reports is there to tick some kind of ethnic box (I should point out that the paper in question was the Daily Mail). First impressions are mixed, he seemed soft spoken and a bit reasonable really, not proper Dragon behaviour, but it's early days.

So first up we had Andy, the David Beckham lookalike, who brilliantly took his representation of Goldenballs a step further by getting very nervous and declaring 'what my concept is...I totally can't talk'. Genius. We had a bidding war between the Dragons over Beach Break Live (just what we need, another music festival). A couple of nutters, and their nutter accountant, trying to flog jerky. And then to finish, the charming Laban Roomes and Midas Touch, his mobile gold plating business. I have no idea how that is a business, but he was so convincing you could see the Dragons desperately trying to help him over the finish line and none more so than new boy Caan. And it was he who took the punt and helped the show end with Laban's gold tooth glinting in the studio lights.

Glorious stuff. Anyone for a fluffy gym-ball cover?


Sunday, 14 October 2007


So a friend of mine has a band, well not a band really, he has assembled a collective which at a recent gig consisted of 14 musicians and 4 vocalists. I wasn't able to go to the gig but they have just released an ep through Bang! records which is great and really worth checking out. Below is a sample track but follow this link to get the ep and enjoy the full Sunharbour experience.

Sunharbour - Alone (feat Nancy J Brown)


Friday, 12 October 2007

Don't go out tonight

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Never judge a book by its cover. But when you are looking blindly for something to read and the book in question is a lovely hardback with slightly embossed boards, blurb from John Burnside among others on the inside cover and the word werewolves in the plot description, then maybe that should be enough to tickle the tastebuds.

Sharp Teeth is a strange concoction; a free-verse novel concerning a group of lycanthropes in modern LA. I am not any kind of expert on poetic structures but free verse looks suspiciously like prose broken up into easier to digest lines. Barlow clearly wants to create something in the line of the epic and mythical poems of the past and as the book progresses, to a large part, he succeeds. There is a rhythmn created and enhanced by the structure and it somehow seems right that this tale of gangs and those living outside of normal society should look and sound a little like a cross between Ginsberg and The Odyssey.

Lark is the leader of the pack. He has his 'Girl', he has plans and an eye on the the other packs that may be operating in the country but he fails to see the coup that wrests his control of the gang and sends him on the run. Whilst he hides as a domestic housedog in Pasadena, 'Girl' has stayed in human form and captured the heart of Anthony a local dogcatcher. As she tries to keep her past hidden from him she works on how to elicit revenge from those rival gang members who tore apart her pack. Lark meanwhile is building a new pack from the outcasts of LA to make moves of his own. This is a novel filed with animal violence neatly summed up by one of the gang members.

'We are wolves,' Cutter chants
in his mind.
'We don't find the weak. We
don't prey on the slow.
We simply eat absolutely
fucking everything

There is also a fantastic description of one initiate undergoing his first 'change' which brings to mind the thrill of watching David Naughton transform in front of your eyes in An American Werewolf In London.

But this is also really a love story and when you strip away the setting and circumstance you are left with lines of very simple beauty which describe what it is like to fall in love.

There love is just about the weight
of the casserole she's taking out of the oven right now.
Their love is eternal because time
seems to have fled, embarrassed
to be sharing such a small apartment with so much dumb affection.

This is a book which hits the right spots, a modern telling of an ancient tale, stripped of the Hammer clichés . LA seems the perfect setting for a tale of the violence and pressure that builds when you treat a group as an underclass. Above all, this is a highly enjoyable book, very entertaining and devoured quickly.

And for those who remember that iconic scene from the movie here is a little track to take you back.

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Bad Moon Rising


Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Radiohead - In Rainbows

The method of release for this, Radiohead's seventh album, has caused quite a stir already in the music industry. It isn't the first time that a band have chosen to cut out the record company and release music directly to the fans, it isn't even the first time that they have let those fans decide whether they want to pay for it or not, but it is the first time that a band with the calibre of Radiohead have made such a move and as a result there is already talk of Oasis, Jamiroqaui and Nine Inch Nails following suit.

After all the hoo-ha though is the album any good? Well I awoke yesterday to find an email from the website with my download details, so much nicer to receive a message like that rather than 'your new bill is ready to view online'. I quickly downloaded it, transfered it onto disc and also onto my phone as I was off to work in the car and it only has a tape player. Now let's be honest, listening to a new release through the slightly tinny speaker of a mobile phone is not the full sonic experience the boys were probably hoping me to experience, although there was something rather apposite about the setting of a traffic jam on the A10 with a light rain covering the windscreen.

So I had a greedy first listen on the way there (and a little refresher on the way back) but the first listen proper was at home and I'm happy to say that it's great. Opener 15 Step has the kind of skittering beats that show the influence of the Warp Records catalogue on our Thom (and is that children shouting 'Yey' towards the end there?). I have always been a fan of The Bends and so it's a bit of guitar I look forward to and on Bodysnatchers we have them in spades, it sounds a little like the wonderfully messy Radiohead of Pablo Honey days. Sure enough we have a ballad up next in Nude, is this fatherhood having an effect on Mr Yorke? And then we have some of the more experimental, boundary testing side of things in Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. And that's only the first four tracks.

Hail To The Thief was an album which was filled with the protest of living in the era of George Bush, Tony Blair and Iraq. In Rainbows sounds more like the sound of a band learning to live in the fallout. Yorke's lyrics sometimes seem to have gone a little soft, 'You're all I need' or 'I don't wanna be your friend, I wanna be your lover' but worry not, both of these lines are quickly followed by 'I'm just an insect trying to get out of the light' and 'Infrastructure will collapse'. This is a fanatastic collection of songs, an album in the proper sense of the word. Thom's voice sounds great (if still a little mumbly) the playing of the other band members is extraordinary at times, making guitars soound like strings on House of Cards, John Barry-like harpsichord and strings on Jigsaw Falling Into Place, a Beatles-like lightness to Faust Arp.

Anyway you don't need me to convince you, you can get the album yourself for whatever you'd like to pay here. Just to help you along the way there is a track below. We should all be thankful that there are bands like Radiohead; asking questions, pushing boundaries and all the time producing haunting beautiful music.

House of Cards


Sunday, 7 October 2007


Tintin and the Secret of Literature
by Tom McCarthy

I have not read a lot of Tintin, in fact I would be surprised if I have read any of them cover to cover. Along with Asterix they were the kind of book I was likely to find in a friend's house or lying around the library somewhere, things were all a bit more classical and British in my house. Nor have I studied literary theory. So what on earth was I doing reading this book then? Well, a good question. It's all down to Tom McCarthy really, as I have said here before, his novel Remainder is probably my favourite book of recent years and I also found lots to admire in his latest, Men in Space (see review here). So I had to have a look at this non-fiction book which was his first published work.

The basic question is whether Hergé's adventures of Tintin can be considered literature. McCarthy argues that contained within the comic strips of Georges Remi are all of the 'keys' that we would expect to find in a novel. He argues with an energy and enthusiasm which means that even when he is stretching the boundaries of credibility you can't help but go along for the ride. I can't pretend to have understood all of it, due to the gaps in my knowledge I pointed out earlier but it is book filled with persuasive ideas and above all written with a genuine love of the subject matter.
There are fantastic sections where McCarthy explores the ancestry of Captain Haddock, the comedy of pratfalls, and the shifting politics of Hergé himself.

What is really interesting is to see how many of the themes contained in McCarthy's fiction are prefigured in the panels of Tintin. The idea of authenticity so rigorously tested by the protagonist in Remainder is a recurring theme in Tintin. And just as we follow the attempts to crack the visual codes and signs contained within the icon painting in Men in Space, McCarthy in this book is using the same tools to find the hidden meaning of Hergé's work. We even have an artist making two copies of the painting he has been asked to forge, just as Manásek does in Men In Space.

After all the code-breaking, crypt entering, puzzle solving, boys own adventure, it does make me want to stumble across a copy of Tintin once again and see if I can spot any more of these hidden clues. I wonder if the library's still open...


Saturday, 6 October 2007

diminishing returns

The Marriage of Souls
by Warwick Collins

This book is the second part of a projected sequence of novels set in the eighteenth century which began with The Rationalist (reviewed here). Continuing the story of Silas Grange, a young doctor in Lymington who has been left physically shattered after an affair of the heart (and body) with the mysterious Celia Quill. For those who have read the first book the first 150 pages are a pain, as the story is recounted. Alternating between third person narration and letters written by Grange's colleague Harwood to a silent correspondent, this limiting structure is a further annoyance. It is almost 200 pages in that we get the first bit of interest; Harwood announces to Grange that he had known Mrs Quill previously, that in fact she had been his mistress.

This kick-starts things a little, beginning with a couple of punches which Grange metes out to Harwood's face. The revelations do not end there and Grange begins some amateur detective work to discover more about Mrs Quill and to find where she may be now. Slowly, Harwood does some detective work of his own as he pieces together what may have happened between his colleague and former mistress in the first novel. That is not to say that there is enmity between the two men, for these are both rational men struggling to work through their emotions.

Rumbling along beside the internal examinations of these two men is the story of the local community, in particular the workers of the local salt furnaces which burn along the coastal horizon and serve as a symbol of the increasing heat and pressure of the two men's passions. This is where Collins is strongest; the alien imposition of these structures as they continue burning into the winter season, how this affects not only the look of the local area but the people who make up the community. As the pressure builds we feel that things are moving to a climax. Where we want the novel to head of course is the reunification of Silas Grange and Celia Quill. But do they meet again? Well after 480 pages one would hope so.

Hargood had said of Mrs Quill's absence, 'It is like a novel, sir, which should leave some presence with you, some aftertaste, which shall remain widowed away in the soul.'

It is a brave thing to write a novel and leave the most intriguing character absent for the vast majority. It is Harwood again who says that a ghost is 'nothing more or less than an intense absence' and Mrs Quill does haunt this novel but, like all ghosts, hers is not a substantial presence and I think that the novel suffers for it. Collins writing is at its strongest when he is describing landcape, not only the coastal areas around Lymington but also his description of London which, for a city boy like me, is fantastic.

... the rhythmn of walking brought a sense of equalibrium. Constantly moving, pursuing the narrow intimacies of the streets, he had a compulsion to walk off the rest of the evening. The plan of that poor area seemed to become part of his mind, a map of his restlessness. The streets where like some grammar which he knew but did not understand, a vast shadowy web which he almost felt that he could conjugate without thinking: the riverside and its ropewalks, the rotting hulks that lay there, the strange hinterland of old houses and warehouses and odd, out-of-the-way homesteads, with their own large barns that seemed always closed and locked, and the strange silent people with their carts and transport moving in and out. He wandered among them unseeing, protected from their suspicions by his own manifest blindness towards their activities, his mind's eye instead focused inwards, on the dark...


she's a rainbow


Friday, 5 October 2007

Face Trumpet

Many moons ago I trained as a dancer. It may be hard for those of you who know me now to picture me in tights, but it's true. Needless to say I didn't have what it takes to be the real Billy Elliot (quite apart from the fact that I grew up in Kent, hardly a gritty mining community). However, one of my friends from that time has gone on to achieve real success as a dancer, appearing in the very show which features at the end of the film Billy Elliot. His talents do not end there however, oh no, he is also a musician/songwriter/artist, one of those people who seems to be able to do all sorts.

So what happens when you combine these talents? What does the melting pot of dance/song and ukelele look like? Well, wonder no more. I give you Face Trumpet.

Helmut and Fuorsken

One Pump of The Fist - The Tim Henman Story


Monday, 1 October 2007


I seem to be watching films with sunshine in the title recently. I wanted to see this one in the cinema as everyone seemed to be raving about the visual spectacle. It does indeed have many great visual moments and Danny Boyle clearly had a few tricks he wanted to show off but what is it with these space movies? People go into space and always end up being chased by something or other. This one is even more similar to the terrible Event Horizon. One ship finds another that had gone missing and guess what; it's all gone a bit wrong. Some decent enough performances (although I'd be a bit annoyed if I was Mark Strong, you can barely tell it's him) but a bit of a disappointment I'm afraid.


oh happy day

Radiohead have announced the release of their latest album.

Oh yes.

It is called In Rainbows and is available from here.
You can pre-order an electronic download now, which will be available from the 10th October and you can decide how much you want to pay. Honestly.
If you're feeling a little flash you can order the £40 discbox which will be shipped in December.

I am stupidly excited.


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