Wednesday, 30 September 2009

'Only remembered for what we have done'

War Horse
by Michael Morpurgo

The National Theatre have made something of a name for themselves in adapting books for children for the stage. His Dark Materials, Coram Boy and War Horse have all enjoyed successful runs and this Christmas Terry Pratchett's Nation will surely pack them in again. One of the keys to that success has been to pick material that allows them to take children on a real journey, one often fraught with very real danger, leaving them terrified at the interval and hopefully exhausted and chattering away like maniacs at the end. Morpurgo's novel was a brilliant choice taking us from the rural idyll of Devon, all the way across the channel to the blood-soaked fields of France during the Great War.

The inspired choice is to narrate the book from the point of view of the horse Joey. An animal, with its lack of understanding about humans and their thoughts, motivations and relationships, is a great viewpoint from which to witness the love of a boy for his horse, the brutal horrors of mechanised warfare, and the lengths to which love can carry you. Albert Narracott takes charge of young Joey after his father buys him at auction. 'A yearling colt and a young lad have more in common than awkward gawkishness' and their close bond is forged immediately, Albert working hard to train him to plough, a job the horse isn't built for by any stretch. It isn't long afterwards that Albert's father sells Joey to the army, the ultimatum of 1914 having arrived all of a sudden and the life of the village and the Narracott family in particular about to be turned upside down.

The optimism of troops heading for the continent is difficult for us to grasp now with out historical perspective. For many of those who signed up before conscription the army offered a chance to travel to those who may not previously have left their own county before. The atmosphere of that journey across the channel is witnessed by the horses.

There was all about us on the ship an air of great exuberance and expectancy. The soldiers were buoyant with optimism, as if they were embarking on some great military picnic; it seemed none of us had a care in the world. As they tended us in our stalls the troopers joked and laughed together as I had never heard them before.

That atmosphere soon changes however and it is the horses who provide a great example of the changing nature of warfare. The idea of a cavalry charge bringing an opposing army to its knees is ridiculously out-moded in the face of barbed wire and machine guns. I don't want to say too much more about the plot, but the slow progress and protracted nature of the fighting allows us to see the war from both sides of the trenches. Joey of course has no awareness of British or German, good or bad, he simply sees other humans in terms of their status within the group. His lack of emotional involvement gives Morpurgo the opportunity to present the human characters and let us watch them, in particular seeing how their behaviour is altered by the arrival of this horse and their projections onto it. One character describes why a horse might be deserving of so much attention during such an extreme time.

Can you not see that he's something special? This isn't just any old horse. There's a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there's divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them.

As you may already know I am joining the company of the National's production of War Horse, in fact the first performance with the new cast is this evening. For that reason it may be a little quiet here whilst things settle down. I shall try to keep on top of things but my wife also gave birth to our second child the other day so I promise nothing, except maybe a few more spelling mistakes.


Friday, 25 September 2009

In The Loop

As a big fan of The Thick Of It I was equal parts intrigued and worried by the feature length spin-off. Not just for myself you understand but as with many British comedies you do wonder whether the humour will translate well across the pond and elsewhere. The strength of the series was always the up to the minute political satire and the profane logorrhea of Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker. By it's very nature a feature film would not be able to be current by the time of its release unless Armando Iannucci had some kind of political crystal ball (which it sometimes seems as though he does) and I suspected that the pressures of pleasing a stateside audience might lead to a toning down of the language and perhaps even the accent it was delivered in. Iannucci avoids the first problem by focusing on the lead up to the second Iraq war, complete with the dodgiest of dossiers, and makes a joke of the second by playing on the American squeamishness for 'cuss-words' and keeping Tucker as explicit as ever and his protégé Jamie MacDonald (the brilliant Paul Higgins) even more so.

The major problem with the film is that it doesn't ever transcend its roots, it just feels like an extended episode of the series, which may not be a problem for those who are already on board but may not make the best viewing for those coming to it new. The involvement of the Americans allows those of us starved of a James Gandolfini fix the chance to see him again, providing the film with one of its more absurd moments as his vast hulk hunches over a little girl's toy calculator so that he can calculate troop numbers and possible casualties for any upcoming invasion. The British cast reprise their roles well and the slot of vacant buffoon is filled by Tom Hollander who just about gets away with it, flooring me with one line: 'difficult, difficult, lemon difficult', which won't make any sense unless you see the film which I recommend you do.


Wednesday, 23 September 2009

'I am London'

by Chris Cleave

A bookseller friend of mine is often mocking me for having highbrow, literary taste, and it's fair to say that whilst we both love books we seldom seem to love the same ones (we once had a big disagreement about The Book Thief). Never let it be said that I don't read commercial fiction though, I've even read Harry Potter for crying out loud, and when he insisted that I try Chris Cleave's début how could I refuse? This tale of the aftermath of a terrorist attack on London was infamously published on July 7th 2005 which meant that book was always seen in that context. The reality of the actual bombings may have taken something away from the fictional development of the aftermath in the novel, but there's no doubting that the initial shock and the mood of defiance that came after it may have struck a chord with readers early on.

The novel is written as a letter to Osama Bin Laden by a mother who loses her young son and husband in a massive bomb attack on Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. Her grief is compounded by the guilt of having been committing adultery at the time of the attack (Cleave none-to-subtly bring both events to a climax simultaneously, the explosion even visible from the window of her flat) and her inability to cope with the emotional fallout from both of these. By making it a letter there is the opportunity to create a strong narrative voice and Cleave's narrator is a working class mum living in an ex-council flat. Stylistically she is signified by her inability to use commas (although she seems to have no problem with apostrophe's - unlike me).

London is a smiling liar his front teeth are very nice but you can smell his back teeth rotten and stinking...We were not the nice front teeth or the rotten back teeth of London and there are millions of us just like that. The middle classes put up web sites about us. If you're interested just put down that Kalashnikov for a second and look up chav pikey ned or townie in Google.
She can spell Kalishnikov too. Brand names are also used to denote class: The Fendi and Hermes of one middle-class character contrasting with the Findus and Nike of our narrator. I'm not saying it's lazy to indicate character in this way (ok, I am a bit) but the lack of consistency with something like missing punctuation just whiffs slightly of being tricksy, especially from a Guardian columnist. It's also not necessary, because given the length of the novel he is able to show in some genuinely interesting ways the character of this woman who needs comfort physically even before the attacks. The vision of London coping with the devastation is what suffers most from the proximity of the July 7th bombings. Given what we all saw happen afterwards Cleave's creation of a London skyscape filled with barrage balloons strikes a horribly false note. This of course is a work of fiction (and one written before the impact of Islamic fundamentalist violence was really felt) so it may be unfair to see it in those terms. The problem is that it's impossible not to. When Muslims begin to lose jobs in sensitive positions it really does feel more appropriate to view it as a work almost of satire. Those barrage balloons, each carrying the image of a victim, are called The Shield Of Hope and the release of a single by Elton John, England's Heart Is Bleeding, 'that was going to be number 1 probably forever or at least until the sun and stars burned out like cheap lightbulbs and the universe ended for good' are well aimed shots that hit their target.

The way in which our mother becomes entangled in the lives of her lover Jasper and his partner Petra, both journalists for a 'big pompous' newspaper, begins to stretch credulity and that's before we get to her relationship with a chief of police and the conspiracy theory climax. The woman at the centre of the novel is the most interesting thing and the trauma she suffers after rushing to the scene, confronted then by the horrific and blood-soaked reality of the bombing, is written in distressing and harrowing detail. The way that visual memories can flash up and encroach on her recovery is both shocking and haunting, as when she is in a department store changing room on a shopping treat with Petra.

The flames started at the end of Petra's hair and they moved along it like a fuse. They spread to her face quite quickly. Her hair burned yellowy-blue like a gas fire. The lacquer on her lips started to go brown and blister. Her lips started moving but it wasn't Petra's voice that came out it was my boy's. Mummy her lips said help Mummy my hair's on fire it hurts it hurts.

Her degradation as the book progresses is compelling in a way that almost makes the complex plotting redundant. I for one would have been far more interested in examining her reaction to that initial event in more detail. How you feel about the book may well depend on how you feel about the passage below.

You've hurt London Osama but you haven't finished it you never will. London's like me it's too piss poor and ignorant to know when it's finished. That morning when I looked down at the sun rising through the docklands I knew it for sure. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself.


Monday, 21 September 2009

'the art of being a hero'

by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

When I posted my review of Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles a small discussion evolved about graphic novels. Most of the graphic work I have read has actually been non-fiction so after those comments I determined to have a crack at a comic. Which one to pick though? There are literally thousands to choose from and the rather strident views of the fans of the form tend not to have a consensus so even picking which of the classics to read wasn't as easy as you think. A weekend holed up in a cottage with a self-confessed comic nut was all that was required to convince me that Watchmen was the daddy. The front cover proudly proclaims it as one of Time magazine's 100 best novels (since 1923 - the year Time magazine was founded) and it's well worth shouting that as I'm sure there are plenty out there who might question whether there's a place for a comic amongst the greats of twentieth century literature. Have no doubt though that there is.

I had a singing teacher once who taught me the importance of acting the words contained in any song in exactly the same way as I would any text. In musicals he explained, the only reason why the actor goes from speaking into singing is because the pitch of emotion or energy has reached the point where simply saying it isn't enough. Why am I going on about singing? Well, because it seemed to me at several points during this book that the only reason it was in a graphic format was because that was the only one that could do the story justice. There are sections of written text at the end of each chapter consisting of memoirs, newspaper clippings, psychiatric reports etc but these written sections are there only to support what has been made graphic in the drawn panels. In a story which explores the clouded motivations behind those who would put on a costume in order to fight crime (as many traditional comic characters are) and which attempts to get to the heart of the American psyche it seems that a graphic format is the obvious choice. It also makes sense of the decision to use Dave Gibbons as the artist. I'll be honest and say that the look of the book was the main reason that I hadn't read this any sooner. It looks like a traditional comic rather than the much cooler, dark artwork of some of the more recent graphic titles. My friend assured me it would all make sense and again it seems the obvious choice given the set up of the story and the themes contained within.

Attempting a précis of a book with so complicated a structure could take up more space than you have patience for so I'll be brief. It is 1985 in an America a little different from the one we knew back then. Victory in the Vietnam war has helped Nixon to win the next election and then to pass legislation to allow him to serve a third term. The reason for that military victory and America's continued dominance of world power is the existence of the world's one and only superhero: Dr Manhattan ('The superman exists and he's American'). His genesis is one of the books highlights; an accident in a laboratory (of course) removes the 'intrinsic field' that holds Dr Jon Osterman together. Seeming to have disappeared it is an extraordinary moment when he reappears as the blue chap you can see on the cover above. Over a period of months he has learned to reassemble himself at the atomic level which means that he now has the ability to control and alter the atomic structure of anything, making him a potent weapon. What it also means is that he now views the world on an atomic level, removing some but not all of what made him human. It is a mark of the audacity of this book that the superman's struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with a woman should be so important to the story, and to the fate of the world when it comes to that.

The cover above shows some of the other 'superheroes'. Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt -the cleverest man in the world), Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk, the second incarnation after her mother Sally), Nite Owl (Daniel Dreiberg, again the second man to operate under this moniker), Rorschach (Walter Kovaks) and kneeling in front The Comedian (Edward Blake, whose murder begins the plot running). These heroes, born out of a period of unrest, have already been rejected by a disillusioned populace and outlawed by legislation when we join them in 1985. None of them ever had special powers, in fact their status as costumed heroes is the mask underneath which Moore finds the space to pursue themes like power, fate, politics, morality, honour, violence, sexual aggression and dysfunction, what it means to be human...you know, the biggies.

I mentioned a complicated structure and this is not only because of the time-shifting that happens as the plot unfolds but the brilliant way that Moore manages to weave the storyline from Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic that a boy reads at a news-stand, in amongst the main feature. The panel I've pictured above shows you some of that and another one below shows its development (click on the images for a clearer view). This isn't just clever because in this alternate history where caped crusaders exist, and therefore have lost their currency with comic readers, it is pirate tales that are the most popular. It isn't just clever because like a sub-plot in any novel it allows Moore to echo and enhance themes from the rest of the book (what he also does well is to run scenes together that provide ironic counterpoint to one another). It's really clever because, in a way that a written novel would struggle to emulate, it allows him to do all of that, at the same time, on the same page. When your eyes and brain are working that hard you begin to understand a bit more why this book deserves its place on that list.

There are so many more themes, images and ideas than I could begin to discuss satisfactorily here and any attempt to summarise further would end up being clumsy. I don't want to incite any of those strident voices against me! I feel certain that it is the kind of book that I am going to be glad to have on the shelf in the future, Moore himself has said that it is a book designed to be read four or five times so I expect it to reward further reading in exactly the same way as any classic novel would; revealing evermore exciting layers and details, telling me something new about what it is to be human.


Friday, 18 September 2009

Noah And The Whale - The First Days Of Spring

I was doing such a good job of avoiding Noah And The Whale. Irritated by their breakthrough single 5 Years Time and its quirky video, not to mention constant appearances on the television due to it being used in a commercial, and finally the shame of having thought it was They Might Be Giants when I first heard it, even a rave review for their new album wasn't enough to tempt me. But then the plaudits kept coming and it sounded as though the breakup-as-inspiration might actually mean the album had some depth to it and so I succumbed and it really is rather lovely on the whole. Dammit.

The title track begins proceedings with a heartbeat drum and a swell on strings that had the hairs standing up a little on the back of my neck. This is an album all about lead singer Charlie Fink's break up with Laura Marling and the lyrics are frank from the start. 'For I do believe that everyone has one chance/To fuck up their lives/But like a cut down tree, I will rise again/And I'll be bigger and stronger than ever before.' And then just to be sure we know at what stage we're at in the break up he sings 'For I'm still here hoping that one day you may come back.' The melancholy thoughts are matched by the low key feel to the song until it builds to an exultant crescendo. Anyone who remembers The Delgados will be familiar with that combination of sharp lyrics and romantic composition.

The quality of the musical production on the album means that there are some genuinely lovely moments. Fink's voice is still a bit too fey to get excited about but there's no doubting the sincerity of what he and the rest of the band are trying to say with this album. The lyrics throughout have the painful authenticity of a fresh wound meaning that you may want to stay clear of this if you've had a break up yourself or things are at all rocky for you and yours, unless you have a thick skin or a big box of tissues. Just song titles like I Have Nothing and My Broken Heart should give you the idea. The descending chords and choral hum of the first usher in the fear of how quickly your partner might be moving on from you: 'I love no one/Are words that you whisper in my mind, to someone/I don't know.' The latter has a mournful violin to accompany that numbed sensation: 'And now my heart's been broken there is nothing you can do/I'm impenetrable to pain/Oh, you can break my broken heart'.

Halfway through the album there is an instrumental which leads into Love Of An Orchestra. It is perhaps the one positive moment on the album and I for one can't stand it. I realise that it's necessary in order to maintain the concept of the album, we need to have the moment of joy in something that begins the forward movement of our heart-broken hero, but it sounds as though the studio has been invaded by a huge choir (it has) and they're trying to convert you to something you don't want to believe in through the power of song. I'll leave that there.

The pain returns soon enough with the guilt and shame of a one night stand on Stranger which manages to mix some beautiful production with some candid lyrics -'Regretfully lying naked, I reflect on what I've done/Her leg still forced in between mine, sticking to my skin/Stroking my chest and my hair, head resting below my chin/I'm a fox trapped in the headlights/and I'm waiting, for the tyres to spin over me.' Blue Skies sounds the first real note of optimism and here the choral backing feels much more a part of things. But even the closing track with its claim to be free has a dolent pedal-steel guitar to temper that optimism. There are no winners in a break-up, the victory is to survive, and Fink comes out the other side with his heart in his hands, keen to make clear 'but you know, my heart's not yours.' The title of that track: My Door Is Always Open. Ah, Neil Sedaka was right.


Wednesday, 16 September 2009

'How dangerous it is to be fashionable.'

A Winding Road
by Jonathan Tulloch

After the fixed space through time that unified Simon Mawer's now Booker shortlisted The Glass Room, Jonathan Tulloch uses a fixed object through time, in this case a painting, which we follow from its creation in 1890 through to the present day, where it has the potential to rock the art world. In contemporary London Piers Guest is an art 'adviser' rather than dealer, a maker of popular art TV programmes, employed by a vast financial organisation to provide guidance on who to buy and how much to pay. He's not afraid to associate with modern artists he thinks are crap, awards himself a nicely inflated commission on any deals and even indulges in a little insider trading to maximise his return. His moral compass is well and truly shot with his personal life degenerating into a series of empty and reductive sexual liaisons whilst his wife, whose creativity has been stifled by the back seat motherhood has forced her into, keeps up appearances in their impressive Chelsea home. To have such a hollow, repellent man at the helm of a large part of this novel allows Tulloch to make presumably his own feelings about the vacuity of modern art more than clear. The only risk is that with such a unlikeable character at the centre of things he risks alienating the reader. This would be a shame because the other two strands of the story demand attention in very different ways.

We first meet Ernst Mann as his former teacher, Prof. Gruber collates his work. A folklorist during the rise of Nazism, his study into Germanic storytelling tradition will be used and perverted through his association with the party. It is important for him to have as long a spoon as possible to sup with that devil because his own family is hiding a secret. His daughter Lotte, born with a cleft palate that places her well within the remit of the Nazi's growing list of undesirables and genetic flaws, is in constant danger of discovery - something her mother has changed into a game where the first sign of anyone approaching their rural retreat in Keilburg leads to a frantic dash to her hiding place where she must remain until the coast is clear. In a book which flits from location to location and from year to year and back again Mann's narrative is the most fractured, providing a chaotic insight into the confusions of the politics of that period, the impact of war and the genuinely terrifying consequences for anyone on the wrong side of the law. The moral questions raised by a man wearing the uniform of an organisation that seeks the destruction of his own daughter are clear enough; Gruber looks to find the 'moment when flirtation becomes a crime; to catch the clink of Mephistopheles coins.' What he finds, in a hidden compartment of Mann's trunk, is that uniform and two oil paintings.

In another complete change of tone Tulloch takes us back to Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890. Home to Dr Gachet and his famous patient; a scene probably best set by taking an excerpt from the journal of writer James Dalrymple who is visiting the region.

A veritable Arcadia of thatched cottages, villas and madness. And whither hasten the bedlamites? To a painting party hosted by Mr Chip Coakley, stolid, talentless son of a railroad king. Painting party? Mad Hatter's tea party rather. Whom of the mental misfits shall attend? Mrs Lucette Oyster, soiled Venus of the London rookeries; the Reverend Fairbanks, an Icarus brought down by the folly of his own obesity; Gachet, also known as Dr Foxglove; and of course, guest of honour, the coming man and chief goofball Vincent Van Gogh, devourer of Utopias, stinking Pan.

Tulloch pulls no punches in describing the ruined state of Van Gogh, one character describing him as looking like 'a testicle with mange' (which we later discover he pretty much does have when he drops his trousers to masturbate whilst painting what we now know as Wheat Field with Crows - above). This isn't to explode any kind of myth about Van Gogh as a person, his unsuccessful fight with depression and mental illness is well known, in fact by describing in such sensual detail (Tulloch enjoys describing smells and sounds particularly) the decay of Van Gogh he ends up creating a huge amount of sympathy for a man clearly struggling to battle his demons. The energy, vivacity and humour of these sections are so enjoyable I only wish there could have been more of them. Tulloch has a difficult feat of alchemy to handle though when combining this with the eventually horrific direction of the Nazi plot line and the sordid antics of our art adviser. There are some forced connections between the strands and some jarring of tone but what he does manage successfully is to cram the novel full of extraordinary visual detail and moments of magic of which the brothers Grimm (who are at the centre of Mann's studies) would have been proud.

This novel is another example of what has been called 'widescreen' fiction and like the better examples of that, despite the epic nature of the book, I think that some of the most effective moments come when the reader is brought in to focus on small details which touch us. The story of the painting and its provenance forms the backbone of the plot but it is a different work of art that captured my imagination. Inspired by the Grimm's Musicians of Bremen, Mann creates a handmade and illustrated version of the story for his daughter - The Musicians Of Keilburg . As Lotte, as a result of her disability, retreats into silence, it is through this book, with it's flick-book-animated donkey on the corner of each page, that her father is still able to elicit giggles and whoops of joy, to communicate with his daughter even whilst the very notion of storytelling is being used and abused to allow others like her to be persecuted and hounded by the witches and trolls that should have remained part of myth and fable.

Tulloch has attempted something ambitious with his latest novel, some parts of which are more successful than others, and it is very possible that your opinion as to which of those are which may be very different to mine. That I suppose is both its strength and its weakness, but the most important thing is to have had the ambition in the first place.


Monday, 14 September 2009

Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

Until now Yo La Tengo have been a band I have often heard in the background at someone else's house, the kind of ambient, dreamy sound that provides a nice underscore to your evening without demanding too much of your attention. The title of their new album hints at a far more conventional sound and whilst there are certainly some finely crafted pop songs the last three tracks account for half of the album's length, extended numbers that have the air of jamming sessions we have become privy to. But we'll get there in a moment.

Here To Fall opens proceedings with deceptively electronic sounds, deceptive because they are soon caught up in swirling strings, reverb-ed keyboards and a funky bass (sounding a bit like David Holmes work). Then we have the straight-up 60's pop of Avalon Or Someone Very Similar, allowing Georgia Hubley's soft vocals to float up high, and just towards the end a note is introduced on the keyboard which runs counter to the melody, pleasingly atonal and subtle preparation for the darker atmosphere of By Two's which is pleasingly hypnotic. The pace suddenly picks up with the fuzzy guitars of Nothing To Hide before the rug is pulled from under your feet by the comic Periodically Double Or Triple. 'Never read Proust/Seems a little too long' begins Ira Kaplan as a funky bass once again bounces the track along with Hammond organ and cute backing vocals.

Kaplan and Hubley finally come together properly on If It's True which again sounds like a cute duet from another era, the harmonies and strings similar to those heard on tracks by Belle and Sebastian. There is a far more romantic tone to I'm On My Way, the track breaking down halfway for an acoustic guitar solo which sounds like something you might hear being used as a serenading tool in a restaurant. The well crafted melodies and soft vocals continue on the next couple of tracks and then we reach the first of the album's longer numbers. More Stars Than There Are In Heaven begins slowly, building strummed guitars and vocal layers, 'We'll walk hand in hand' the voices combine to announce and as the track develops with detail added by further guitars and voices there is a clever combination of epic sound and intimacy, a bit like voices and instruments joining together around a campfire. In fact that intimacy is also there on the album's two biggies which feel more like eavesdropped jams rather than over-produced album closers.

My mention of the campfire above was thought up before I realised that the penultimate track was called The Fireside. Redolent of the extended soundscapes of Papa M it is a slow track with echoing acoustic guitars and other treated sounds which manages to be repetitive without being boring. And The Glitter Is Gone brings things to a close with an amp-kicking, guitar smashing finale. Fuzzy guitars, feedback, screeching; it's all there. For just over quarter of an hour. In fact there's a danger that these last three tracks are a bit on the indulgent side but as someone who's been listening to this as I walk, they have been providing an interesting soundtrack.

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have been pleasing critics and listeners alike for over 20 years together and this is the first album of theirs that I have properly listened to. Personally, I enjoyed the funky guitars and cinematic strings but there's a fair bit of variety in there to keep a wide range of tastes entertained. I guess I shouldn't just relegate them to the background.


Friday, 11 September 2009

United 93

When Paul Greengrass's dramatisation of the fate of the one plane not to reach its target on 11th September 2001 was released five years after the event some questioned whether enough time had elapsed for a film like it to be made. That same year saw the release of Oliver Stone's World Trade Centre, which I haven't seen, but I suspect that the documentary integrity of United 93 makes it a film that was actually timely rather than mis-timed. There has been a steady stream of 'post 9/11' artistic interpretations since then, in fact that phrase has become so clichéd that is risks taking away from the impact of the event itself. Watching this film now eight years later it brought back all the confusion and incredulity of the day, brilliantly capturing I think the utter unpreparedness of America in the face of such a paradigm shift in terrorism.

Because we know exactly where the story ends there is almost a double dramatic irony in watching events unfold. The slow progress made by each passenger to the plane, the workaday normality for the air traffic controllers, the sense of unease as the last passenger sprints to make it in time to the door, these are all fairly obvious; but the confidence is what is about to be shattered. When the first hint of a hijacking is revealed the air-traffic controllers almost joke about how long it's been since they've had to deal with a hostage situation, they're almost fishing out the manual on how to deal with this kind of thing completely unaware that the hijackers have no intention of landing, bargaining or explaining anything. Because so many things seemed to happen on that one day the chronology of events is something I still haven't quite managed to pin down. Greengrass exploits this and the stuttering relay of information to show the total inability to comprehend and react to the unfolding tragedy. After the film finishes a piece of text informs us that the military only became aware that the flight had been hijacked four minutes after it had crashed in Pennsylvania. The military confusion and communication breakdown is total: planes leave without weapons, fly in the wrong direction, clarification of the rules of engagement is always being asked for. It is stressed that the final say lies with the President and I couldn't help but remember that blank expression on his face when he was told of the second plane, sat on that small chair, as children read a story.

For those on the plane, after the initial shock and violence of the hijacking, it is amazing how quickly they galvanize and start thinking about their situation. Information is everything. The change in direction, the spotting of the pilots down on the ground, the sense that the bomb that is strapped to the waist of one of the hijackers may not be real; these set them investigating. Once they have news of the attack on the twin towers of course everything has changed. The film is impressively put together, well acted by pleasingly unknown faces and the only question I had was what can be learned from watching it? The unprecedented nature of the attacks softens any kind of blow that might be struck at the reactions of those on the ground. The passengers on the plane seem not so much heroic as utterly human in their response. The big question mark lies over the hijackers of whom we learn little about, beyond the mechanics of the operation. It is a question mark which still remains in place, in large part, today.


Wednesday, 9 September 2009

'the tangible tarnish of newsprint'

All The Colours Of The Town
by Liam McIlvanney

John Self positively reviewed this début novel from LRB and TLS contributor McIlvanney but was surprised that the book hadn't been reviewed in the press in the first couple of weeks of its release. It has since been reviewed in The Scotsman but that seems to be about it. The only other area in which it is receiving attention is on Amazon, where publishers Faber have made it available to reviewers who are part of the Vine programme. There has been a generally positive response and I'm happy to add my own voice to that, especially as a crime thriller set against the backdrop of the Troubles couldn't really have been further away from my radar. I'm being immediately unfair in describing it in those terms, I don't mean to suggest that this is genre fiction, merely that if it hadn't been for John or Vine I wouldn't have been likely to pick it up and I'm glad I did.

There are a few elements to this book which feel so close to cliché that I was a little worried when I began. Gerry Conway is a newspaper man in Glasgow, writing for the Tribune on Sunday, and fulfils many of the criteria you might expect: divorce, drink problem, unsatisfying career; check, check and check. McIlvanney's treatment of some of these manages to lift them away from being standard tropes of the format. Conway is on the wagon for instance, something we don't know until a lunchtime drink suddenly becomes significant, and the slow accumulation of alcohol and the ease with which he slips back into his addictive behaviour is well handled, keeping pace with the descent into the murkier reaches of the plot.

So what of that plot? It begins, as it always should in a newsroom, with a phone call. For Conway, a few days away from a short holiday with his sons, work is something to be avoided, not to mention the apathy that comes from experience.

Every day they plagued you. Cranks and timewasters, slanderers and fantasists. Breathless grievance merchants. Whispering grasses. People with the inside dope, the horse's mouth, on various ministers and mandarins. Rumours and smears and did-you-hear-the-one-abouts so-and-so. They floated this stuff on blogs, but it wasn't enough. They need the validation of a forty-point head-line, the tangible tarnish of newsprint.

But the tip when he finally opens his eyes to it is potentially huge. A politician on the way up would create huge headlines if he was to be brought down, and the combination of politics and sectarian violence makes the revelations potentially explosive. The close connections between Scotland and Ireland are particularly well rendered. Sometimes this is in the complex web of political and social ties, sometimes it is the simple proximity of the two nations. One character is described as slipping 'back and forth between Ireland and Scotland like the phantom 'e' in whisky', such a clever and evocative sentence. There is also a touching moment where Conway whilst in Ireland is able to talk to his son on the phone, the 'block of mauve' that he thinks might be Scotland in his sights. His boy of course wants to know if his dad saw him waving from the window.

'Of course I did.'
'Are you waving back?'
'Yeah. I'm waving.'
'I didn't see you.'
'Of course you didn't. That's because it's foggy over here.'

This is a small moment of light in what is naturally a fairly dingy book. What I found very convincing was the subtle change of perspective for Conway. It begins with a certain misty-eyed respect for what divides religious observance or football supporters in his hometown, as he watches Scotland's Orangemen march.

I like the Walk. I know you're not supposed to. I know it's a throwback, a discharge of hate, a line of orange pus clogging the streets of central Scotland. But I like it anyway. I like the cheap music, its belligerent jauntiness. I like the crisp gunfire of the snares. I like the band uniforms and the hats and the apocalyptic names stencilled on the Lambeg drums: Craigside Truth defenders; Denfield Martyrs Memorial Band; Pride of Glengarnock Fifes and Drums...It's a carnival of restraint, a flaunting of continence...All except for the drum major, who dances enough for everyone. He takes up the shortfall, whirling and spinning, knocking himself out. All their sinful urges, all the demons of the tribe: he takes them into himself and dances them out.

When this same event erupts into violence it is the first of many such encounters for Conway which bring him face to face with the brutal reality of sectarian hatred, a shocking wake up call which he not only feels personally but is also made personal by McIlvanney's insistence on keeping it specific rather than general, which would have been an easy trap to fall into with such a long burning issue at the book's heart. A slightly tougher editor could have got rid of the constant use of brand names, wine types and street locations (some of which I accept are integral and loaded with meaning, but many of which just felt like a tic) and some lengthy list-like descriptions. But in a strong début McIlvanney has tapped right into the power games that typify politics, media and violence; creating an atmosphere similar to that showcased in The Wire's final season; a male dominated world of intimidation, violence and secrecy where the thing that becomes most powerful is the truth.


Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men

I had this flagged as the only album on the Mercury shortlist that I thought I might be interested in listening to and then as I was completing an entire circuit of the M25 at about two in the morning (long story) a track came on the radio which saved me from torpor and a possible accident. As it finished, the reassuringly husky tones of Bob Harris informed me that it was Kalypso, a highlight of Twice Born Men but by no means the only gem on an album that bookies have given no chance of winning this evening - but when did they ever call this one correctly?

Taking their name from the central character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five the band have been labelled as art-rock by some. There is certainly something experimental in their sound and in their instrumentation, the aforementioned Kalypso lists a 'tuned dishwasher' for instance, and the liner notes for this album almost say more about the cover art than the music contained within. The nautical theme of that chalk drawing runs throughout the album with the lyrics continually referencing images of ship and sailcloth, themes of journey and discovery.

Here It Begins opens with what sounds like a tolling bell but distorted and flickering like a scratched CD. A sampled voice talks of the joy of being on the move and a single guitar slowly picks out a melody with lots of other 'sounds' creating a fuller soundscape. Truth Only Smiles features the banjo playing of Anthony Bishop which features strongly on the album. Despite the soaring and sing-along chorus there's a dark heart to this tale 'With easy grace and needy hands/They murdered love’s sweet circumstance/And calmly fashioned flawless alibis'. Tim Elsenburg's voice has a definite hint of Guy Garvey about it which may be another reason why the prize may elude them, but the men's voices combine well on this track. There's a melancholy to Bloodless Coup both in the lyrics -'What’s to overthrow/When everything you know’s corrupted/No matter what you do', the heavy vibrato from Elsenburg (which may not be to all tastes) and that banjo once again. Guitars come in to give it some bite before it ends on a yearning note again.

Longshore Drift is a slightly more challenging track, the lyrics repeating and the melody carried only by the vocal which has an air of declamatory Bowie about it. Electronic beeps and sounds accompany the strings which take over halfway through and you'd be forgiven at this point for thinking of Radiohead's Kid A with the refusal to make things easy. That said we then have Kalypso which is as easy a track to love as you could hope for. A tale of 'Two tiny ships on vast horizons', it is filled with nautical images, interesting instrumentation and a melody that tugs at the old heart strings.

Future Perfect Tense opens and closes with a syncopated bass that has a jazz influence and had me thinking of Radiohead once again (I really need to stop saying that, don't I). Sandwiched in the middle is the banjo which when combined with more lyrics of a nautical nature continues the combination of folk that links both land and sea. Joy Maker Machinery is firmly rooted to the ground, beginning slowly and with an almost melancholy air, but the positivity of the lyrics (The newborn blush that makes us drunk/On every little kiss) and the combined vocals help to lift it into the air. The hymn-like There Will It End brings things to a close with a togetherness that feels like a fireside singalong. There is a slight ponderousness to this and some other parts of the album which may put some off, but if you've the time there is always something going on in the textured soundscapes to keep it interesting.

The Mercury Music Prize is for the album of the year and the unifying themes and structure of Twice Born Men make it a definite album as opposed to collection of songs but its similarities to last years winner may keep it from the prize. It already feels as though the nights are closing in again and I can well imagine myself putting this on as the elements rage outside, a perfect place to find refuge and shelter.


Monday, 7 September 2009

'I am the memory'

by Roberto Bolaño

Because of my section by section review of 2666 Roberto Bolaño is the most reviewed author on this blog. Which is ironic as I fear we may have just fallen out with each other. My first experience of his writing was the riotous road-movie of a novel that was The Savage Detectives. It was due to my enthusiastic review of that novel that I was sent a proof of Amulet after publishers Picador ran a competition on their blog. I would have needed some prompting to get back into bed with Bolaño after struggling through his posthumous opus at the beginning of the year and I'm afraid that my latest experience may have soured things beyond repair.

It needn't have been that way. Amulet is narrated by Auxilio Lacouture, the self styled 'mother of Mexican poetry', who is really more of a ligger on the periphery around the young poets of Mexico in the late 60's and early 70's. Described as a female DonQuixote by Pedro Garfias, she makes a memorable cameo appearance in The Savage Detectives describing her incarceration in the women's toilets on the fourth floor of the University building whilst army troops rounded up student protesters during the demonstrations of 1968 (leading to a massacre of at least thirty but perhaps as many as two or three hundred protesters in Tlatelolco) . Her brief contributions to that book are energised and romantic but in Amulet she is given 184 pages of loose, dream-like prose, still using that siege in the 4th floor bathroom as a locale if you like, an experimental vantage point which I will leave her to explain.

Then I began to think about my past as I am doing now. As I went back through the dates, the rhombus shattered in a space of speculative desperation, images rose from the bottom of the lake, no one could stop them emerging from that pitiful body of water, unlit by the sun or moon, and time folded and unfolded itself like a dream. The year 1968 became the year 1964 and the year 1960 became the year 1956. But it also became the years 1970 and 1973 and the years 1975 and 1976. As if I had died and was viewing the years from an unaccustomed vantage point. I mean: I started thinking about my past, all mixed together and dormant in the one tepid egg, the enormous egg of some inner bird (an archaeopteryx?) nestled on a bed of smoking rubble.


It is left for the reader to try and assemble some kind of narrative structure to the increasingly chaotic ramblings of Lacouture. There are episodes which are clear enough, such as the moment where Arturo Belano and Ernesto San Epifanio (both of whom also feature in The Savage Detectives) go to visit The King of the Rent Boys in order to extricate Ernesto from the kingpin's clutches. But all too often the erratic nature of the time-shifting delivery and the soft focus of the dream-like remembrances take away from any sense of development. Themes and images seem to repeat rather than echo one another and I for one was left scratching my head at the end.

In one section Lacouture has a conversation with the reclusive artist son of one her friends. He tells her the myth of Orestes and Erigone, going into great detail and leaving her baffled as to what her reaction should be. Should she perhaps 'act as though I had understood his story (although I hadn't)' ? In the end, she does nothing. I think I might do the same because I can't pretend that to understand.

I realise this kind of review isn't hugely helpful (apart from helping you to cross a potential book off the list if it doesn't sound like a starter) so if you would like to read something more positive may I recommend Scott Bryan Wilson's review from Quarterly Conversation.


Friday, 4 September 2009

Revolutionary Road

The mantra goes something like: 'Always read the book before watching the film', and that was the plan but then the reviews of the film were a little lukewarm and so the book slipped down the pile. Then 'er indoors wanted to see it and I figured that because the book was bound to be better than the film then perhaps this was exactly the right way round to do it: enjoy decent-ish film, then read masterpiece. A sound theory. And like many theories in practice it turned out to be wishful thinking. I'm sure the book is a masterpiece and I shall probably read it some day but the film was not so much decent-ish as just -ish.

Sam Mendes makes slow films. Really slow films. Thanks to Roger Deakins they have some nice cinematography in them but far too often I find myself thinking 'that's a rather clunky camera move, why is he moving the camera out here, or panning there?' Mendes was honest about his lack of experience with film-making after the success of American Beauty but with the recent release of his fifth feature he had better start showing some more mastery or those brownie points are going to lose their currency. This film has three stars written all over it but because it feels a bit long and frankly (no pun intended) a bit boring in places it left me feeling more like I wanted to give it two out of spite. Even without reading the book I can tell that Leonardo DiCaprio is miscast. He may be the right age but it's one of those films where there's an awful lot of 'not-acting' going on. What I mean by this is that DiCaprio has a few modes: the films where he's so well cast that you don't really see the acting (Basketball Diaries, Romeo and Juliet, Catch Me If You Can), the films where he's doing a character so that all you can see is the acting (Gangs Of New York) and the films where he's trying so hard to give a worthy performance that his 'not-acting' is totally conspicuous. I may not be the biggest fan of Mad Men but there are several actors in that that I completely believe in that sort of period and setting and who convey the sexual mores of the time. I just didn't get Frank Wheeler from this film.

Kate Winslet as April Wheeler is another enigma. Family life clearly wasn't working out for her (her children are almost entirely absent from the film) but I didn't ever really understand why she got so little joy or contentment from being a mother. It's a pretty good performance but I understand she's much better in Little Children. Kathy Bates looks like she's treading water as Mrs Givings and Michael Shannon as her son John gives a performance that screams Oscar nomination. God, I'm sounding a bit moany, I can't imagine where I've picked that tone up from. Oh, I know, The Wheelers.

Right, a comedy next I think.


Wednesday, 2 September 2009

'Our true intent is all for your delight.'

The Death Of Bunny Munro
by Nick Cave

When I reviewed the last album from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds I explained my Damascene conversion to his talents. Having once thought he was a bit rubbish I confessed that I thought he wrote 'some of the best lyrics going, real storytelling through song, and a wicked sense of humour running through it all.' Then I saw that he was publishing a novel, not even his first (And the Ass Saw the Angelwas published over 20 years ago), and couldn't help but wonder if those qualities could be sustained in that much larger format.

Bunny Munro is not in a good way. 'I am damned' he thinks in the opening sentence of the book and he very much is. Swigging miniatures in a hotel room as he talks to his depressive wife on the phone he cuts a pretty sad figure, even more so when it becomes clear that whilst he claims to be miles away and thus incapable of getting home to her he is actually in the same town and entertaining a prostitute in his room. It is a rude awakening the following day when he finally makes it home only to discover that his wife has committed suicide. Now with full responsibility for his son, Bunny Jr, he decides to do what he does best which is get on the road and sell, for Bunny is a salesman of beauty products.

'I learned the trade with my old man, out on the streets, you know, the front line ...He had a gift my old man, the talent, and he taught me the art - how to be a people person. That's what we are doing, Bunny Boy. You may not be able to see it right now, but I am handing down the talent to you.'

The talent isn't about selling the various creams and lotions though, it's about selling 'the dream', and when pressed by his son to reveal what the dream is he has to come clean and admit that it's 'me'. This book and indeed the rest of this review might be best avoided if you balk at the idea of reading the exploits of a renowned pussy-hound. The opening section of the book is entitled Cocksman and Bunny's talents seem to extend into this area too. The regularity of his copulation, particularly once he's on the road, means that at times this reads like the fiction equivalent of those 'Confessions...' films starring Robin Askwith. Don't worry though, this is Nick Cave and the tone is much darker than those sex-comedies. The combination of alcohol and grief makes Bunny a pretty unreliable narrator and the book gets stronger and stronger as it veers away from the vaginal obsessions of Bunny (Avril Lavigne and Kylie Minogue both feature prominently and receive apologies in the acknowledgements section) and into a hallucinatory and genuinely disturbing journey into a dark heart.

Bunny Jr initially feels like a bit of a cipher; a smart kid who carries around his encyclopaedia, working his way through to enlightenment; but his love for and devotion to his father is genuinely touching. In spite of how badly he is neglected he cannot get angry or help himself admiring this man who continues to amaze him with his achievements (like putting an entire sausage in his mouth at breakfast - awe-inspiring). There is a website to promote the book which includes footage of Cave himself reading passages and they give you an even better idea of the tone. It's rude, lewd and you might even be able to see his actual tongue in his cheek. For the first half or so this is entertaining but was beginning to get a bit ho-hum, the slightly more adventurous final third makes a big difference, edging it into far more interesting territory.


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