Thursday 29 November 2007

Statement of Regret by Kwami Kwei-Armah- Cottesloe, National Theatre

Statement of Regret is the third part of Kwami Kwei-Armah's 'literary triptych' for the National Theatre about African-Caribbean experience. The first Elmina's Kitchen was a hit that transferred to the West End, the second Fix Up was well received if less enthusiastically and the same can be said for this third play which is provocative, interesting and let down by a terrible production at the National Theatre.

Grieving after the death of his father Kwaku Mackenzie returns to the office of his think tank the Institute of Black Policy Research. He is hitting the bottle and struggling to set the agenda, his efforts lead him to develop a policy of slavery reperations for West Indians exclusively, which opens up a race divide in his all black office that threatens to sink the firm. Add to this the conflict of employing his bastard son to work alongside his legitimate son, financial problems, an affair with a young work colleague and the ghostly presence of his father and you can see that this play has a lot of ideas fighting for supremecy.

The first problem is that the political setting and nature of the play leads to some fairly leaden action, characters shouting ideas and policy at each other, which can make us feel we are in a debating society rather than a theatre. The reason we notice this so much in this production is that the human stories underneath it aren't being played, or at least aren't being played enough. There is so much there bubbling beneath the surface of the text but some of the actors seem to have been left stranded and when the scenes begin to heat up we are just treated to some more shouting.

Don Warrington puts in a strong central performance as Kwaku, a man struggling with his heritage (brilliantly mocked when he is criticised for having adopted an African name to conceal his real name; Derek - a self deprecating jab from Kwei-Armah who I believe has done the same), his accent shifting as his life collapses around him. There is brilliant support from Javone Prince and Clifford Samuel as his two sons, as they battle for the love and admiration of their father. But at the end of the evening I left feeling that whilst the play had lots to talk about, the production had fallen rather flat.


Wednesday 28 November 2007

Premature adulation

On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan

Since he won the Booker Prize with Amsterdam and popular and critical success with Atonement each new work by Ian McEwan is greeted with fervent anticipation and phrases like 'a writer at the height of his powers'. I loved Atonement, found lots to admire in Saturday (but also quite a lot that was frankly laughable) and to be honest wasn't all that fussed about reading this slim novella, and it was interesting to see that sales of On Chesil Beach outstripped the sales of all the other titles on this years Booker shortlist combined.

Edward and Florence, both virgins, are spending their first night as a married couple at a hotel near the famous Chesil Beach. They are both from different backgrounds; Edward has led a life of limited worldly experience and Florence, a gifted musician, one of privilege. They both have their own worries about the intimacy of this first night as man and wife; Edward, rather hilariously, has abstained from 'self-pleasuring' for over a week so as to be on top form for his bride but worries about arriving too soon, Florence, disgusted by the idea of physical intimacy, is not only fearful but aware that she has brought this on herself.

This is a short story really which has been fleshed out with some family background for both characters which doesn't really convince and a hastily summarised ending which feels tacked on. It's a shame really because the writing, as ever, is first rate. The prose is tight with barely a word wasted and there is a lot of fun to be had in the descriptions of the young couple's awkward courtship; one highlight being Edward's military style campaign towards sexual intimacy being set back months after a misguided fumble in a darkened theatre.

I find it difficult now to understand a time when 'a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible' which is maybe why I found this book so frustrating. It is after all about the things that this young couple are unable to say to each other. Only when they are forced to confront each other with their true feelings out on the pebbled beach of the title did I feel my interest rising. After enjoying Atonement so much I have been wanting to feel the same about everything since but McEwan has yet to hit those heights again for me. Maybe with his next sure to be shorlisted and critically successful novel I will fall in love again.


Monday 26 November 2007

The Unquiet American

Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson

Were it not for the fact that this novel has just won the National Book Award in America I would describe Denis Johnson as a vastly underrated writer. In this country certainly you would be hard pressed to find many who have read much of his output which includes fiction, poetry, plays and journalism. The fact that he was unable to appear in person to collect the NBA as he was on assignment in Iraq should tell you something about this most unconventional of writers. I could write a lot (and probably will at some point) about Johnson's work in general but for now I will restrict myself to talking about this latest novel.

There is no need to use the word restrict because this vast novel (614 pages) contains huge themes, a cast list to rival any Shakespeare play and is no more or less than a War and Peace for the Vietnam era. I am not trying to make any grand claims for the book but it is almost impossible to read a novel this ambitious without seeing it in those terms. Coming 7 years after his last novel (the slim but equally fascinating The Name Of The World) and almost 35 years since the end of the Vietnam War, I was surprised to see such a tome, but there is nothing conventional about this book, it is a demanding read, it is flawed, but it is thrilling to see a writer of Johnson's talents tackling such an undertaking. Any attempt by me to summarise the plot or even just the characters will fail but here we go.

Beginning the day after the assassination of JFK, ('The dividing line between light and dark goes through the center of every heart. Every soul. There isn't one of us that isn't guilty of his death.') with a chapter for each year up until 1970 (with a coda in 1983) the plot revolves around William 'Skip' Sands, 'a young American man who alternately thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished himself to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American.' A CIA operative he starts in the Philippines and works in Vietnam eventually with his uncle, 'the Colonel', a Kurtz-like figure working in Psy-Ops. The Tree of Smoke of the title is '(pillar of smoke, pillar of fire) the "guiding light" of a sincere goal for the function of intelligence- restoring intelligence gathering as the main function of intelligence operations, rather than to provide rationalizations for policy. Because if we don't, the next step is for career-minded power-mad cynical jaded bureaucrats to use intelligence to influence policy. The final step is to create fictions and serve them to our policy makers in order to control the direction of government' And for those British readers that may just remind you of a certain 'dodgy dossier'. For Americans we're into the realm of Rumsfeld's 'known unknowns'. The Colonel's eventual plan is to send false intelligence of a rogue American plot to bring the war to a swift conclusion with a pillar of smoke in the form of a mushroom cloud.

But this is a multi-layered book and the real plot is that of war and how it effects all those who are involved in it. We have the Houston brothers James and Bill (who is the 'hero' of Johnson's debut novel Angels) and their Mother back home. Both of these boys becoming men in conflict and for James in particular the realisation that after all he has been through, he may not be suited to the ordinary life. We have various shadowy characters from the world of intelligence, Sergeant Jimmy Storm, Rick Voss, Anders Pitchfork, Dietrich Fest, the names alone should be making you want to read this novel. All of them operating in a region beyond the normal controls; 'We're on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream'.

As the moral centre of the book we have Kathy Jones who, recently widowed, meets Skip in the Philippines and they become lovers. When apart she writes him letters, telling him that when he reaches Vietnam he will find it like purgatory; 'Five or ten times a day you'll stop and ask yourself, When did I die? And why has God's punishment been so cruel?'. We also have several Vietnamese characters; Nguyen Minh who flies helicopters for the Colonel, his uncle Nguyen Hao who forms a relationship with the Americans and his close friend Trung, who attempts to assassinate the Colonel at the start of the novel, and will eventually become a double agent for the Colonel and the man to carry the false intelligence.

The novel's title has a biblical origin and with other references throughout, this is a book marked by religion. But this is a world forsaken by God or at least ruled by different administrations, one perhaps where he only exists as the desperate imagining of those who live in it. Loyalty, a recurring theme, leads many to think of Judas and Christ. We have a priest who has given up on prayer, a mother at home for whom 'prayer was all she had. Prayer and Nescafe and Salems'. The correspondence between Kathy and Skip often struggling with faith. Vietnam itself is shown as a region of hell. A land and its people being destroyed by a nation trying to maintain faith.

What really stands out for me is the dialogue. It isn't there simply to forward plot but to brilliantly render character. From the idiomatic speech of the soldiers, the staccato phone conversations across continents, the vicious language of interrogation and conflict, Johnson's work recently as a playwright seems to have honed his already gifted ear for the speech of those at the margins, those living at the edge. He also has the ability to fill this violent novel with moments of real beauty and sadness.

Yes, it is flawed. Johnson's prose, if you haven't read him before, is not always easy, but why should it be, especially in a book like this? It is invigorating, as I said, to read a writer dealing with such big topics and doing so fearlessly. Where are the British writers dealing with our recent history, our national psyche and above all writing so bravely?


Thursday 22 November 2007

feed your brain, feed the world

There is a great site where you can play a vocabulary game which teases your brain and for every answer you get right they will donate 10 grains of rice through the United Nations to help world hunger. Now 10 grains isn't a lot on its own of course but the vocab test is annoyingly addictive as you try to rise up the levels and since it began on the 7th of October the site has donated 3,059,177,080 grains of rice. That sounds like quite a few sacks to me and that's in just 6 weeks. Go along and test yourself by clicking on the picture above.


Thursday 15 November 2007

making music

It's one of those adverts where you think 'How did they do that?'



Wednesday 14 November 2007

good things come...


Monday 12 November 2007

Two sides of Adam

A friend of mine pointed me towards this from Adam Buxton of Adam and Joe fame. It's silly but it made me laugh.

Whilst there though I found this, a video he made with Thom and Jonny from Radiohead which is simple and brilliant.

Go to his website to see more videos he made with them including a great re-working of the finale from the film Se7en.


Sunday 11 November 2007

come with us now on a journey through time and space

If you like your comedy silly with funky music and extreme fashion then the Boosh are for you my friend. Series 3 of The Mighty Boosh is on BBC 3 from next Thursday at 10:30pm but if you're really impatient like me you can watch the first episode online here.


Friday 9 November 2007

Gone for good

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

In The Ghost Writer, the first novel to feature Nathan Zuckerman, the young writer travelled from New York to the Berkshires to visit his hero E.I.Lonoff. In Exit Ghost, which is probably the final appearance of Roth's alter ego, the journey is reversed and after 11 years in rural exile Zuckerman returns to the city, 'where the biggest thing of all occurred', on the eve of the presidential election which, we know, will put Bush back in the White House.

I had banished my country, been myself banished from erotic contact with women, and was lost through battle fatigue to the world of love.

He has made the journey, impotent and incontinent after prostate surgery, to undergo a procedure that he hopes will return to him some control over his bladder. It is the latest in the series of mortifications which we have endured with Zuckerman and another stripping away of the vitality and virility which has been such a huge part of him. Face to face with modern life again he surprises himself by responding to a house-swap advert from a young writerly couple looking for solitude, allowing his return to the city. But confronted with ghosts from his past his attempt to re-engage with the world is doomed to be a futile gesture.

Along with the surprise of making impulsive decisions comes the surprising reawakening of his sexual self. Jamie the young female writer exerts 'a huge gravitational pull on the ghost of my desire' but where the mind is willing the body is unable 'I experienced the bitter helplessness of a taunted old man dying to be whole again'. But the problem here is that the mind isn't even that willing anymore. Zuckerman's encounters with Jamie come in the form of imagined dialogues which lack character,insight and any real teeth at all.

He also encounters the woman who played such a thrilling part in the first novel, Amy Bellette, whom Zuckerman re imagined as an Anne Frank who had survived her fate. Now at the age of 75 she is transformed into a crazy looking woman in customised hospital gown with head half shaved and an ugly scar across her scalp, a horrific transformation from the woman who had so charged the young Zuckerman's creativity. Having survived her lover Lonoff she is being hounded (as will Zuckerman) by Kliman, a young writer who wishes to write a biography of Lonoff containing the 'big secret' he had kept from everyone. Zuckerman's battles with this arrogant, pushy reminder of his own youth are the closest we get to fireworks. 'You're dying old man you'll soon be dead! You smell of decay. You smell like death!' he shouts to a urine soaked Zuckerman.

Roth writes very well about what it is like to be a man losing his potency, both physically and mentally but the problem with having such a debilitated hero is that the writing as a whole suffers. Reading the dialogues between Zuckerman and Jamie is like reading a bad play script. Towards the end of the novel there is a section eulogising George Plimpton which comes from nowhere and feels very out of place. Roth is still better than most writers even when not on top form but there isn't much fun to be had reading a writer writing about how hard it has become to write.


Thursday 8 November 2007

The-fourth-most-popular-folk-parody-duo (in New Zealand)

Loving these two fluff-heads
BBCFour Tuesday's 21.30-22.00


Tuesday 6 November 2007

Bunny way to end it all

There is something about a bunny wanting to commit suicide which is just hilarious and the constant ingenuity of Andy Riley's series of pictures keeps tickling my funny bone (one I saw recently involved our bunny with a deranged looking woman and a copy of Fatal Attraction on video). You can buy the latest selection here, a perfect christmas gift, and you can see more of the pictures here.


Monday 5 November 2007


In the opening sequence of this film a group of men from a Mayan village hunt and kill a tapir. It is a thrilling chase and at the end, as the spoils are divided amongst the men, we learn a lot about their characters and standing in this community. The next morning the village is ransacked by a group of soldiers looking for more men and women to be sacrificed in order to maintain the prosperity of the kingdom. A young man, Jaguar Paw, hides his pregnant wife and young son in a deep hole for safety but is captured along with others and marched off to the temple. When an eclipse saves him from being sacrificed at the altar it is then a desperate chase as he runs to save his life and that of his family.

This is one of the most visceral, compelling and violent films I have ever seen. Directed by Mel Gibson it has some of the bone crunching action he perfected in Braveheart but from nowhere he has brought us a film filled with the thumping heartbeat of the chase, the desperate need to keep living and the lengths which one man will go to and endure in order to preserve himself, his family, his whole way of life. It is not for the fainthearted and many might feel that Gibson seems to revel a little too much in showing the blood spurting, limb snapping detail of the violence but this is a high stakes film where the consequences of not missing that flying arrow or spear are painfully apparent. Extraordinary one-of-a-kind stuff.


Sunday 4 November 2007


I believe this is the third time that Penelope Cruz has worked with Pedro Almodovar and whilst she may have given some terrible performances in English (and been eclipsed for a while by the media nightmare that is a relationship with the other Cruise) she proves herself to be a quite exceptional actress in Volver.

Meaning 'The Return' Volver begins in the village of Alcanfor de las Infantas; a superstitious place, where it is said that the East Wind drives many inhabitants insane. Raimunda (Cruz), her daughter and her sister Soledad have come to visit the grave of their mother who was killed in a fire with her husband. Whilst there they visit their aunt Paula who, a little senile and through milk-bottle glasses, tells them that their mother is alive and living with her. Back home in Madrid, Raimunda comes home from work one day to find her daughter looking disturbed. She has stabbed the man she thought to be her father after he drunkenly tried to rape her. Whilst she deals with this Raimunda is called by her sister to be told their aunt has died. It is when returning from the funeral on her own that Soledad hears the voice of her mother calling her from the boot of the car.

The performances are all exceptional (the six actresses shared the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2006) but Cruz really shines in her role. When her drunken husband masturbates beside her in bed, after she has shrugged off his advances, we see her look of surprise, disgust and sadness as a tear wells in her eye. Later in the film she sings the song Volver to a restaurant filled by a film crew wrap party and whilst she may only be lip syncing her performance had me doubting.

Almodovar has said that the film 'is precisely about death...More than about death itself, the screenplay talks about the rich culture that surrounds death in the region of La Mancha, where I was born. It is about the way (not tragic at all) in which various female characters, of different generations, deal with this culture.' I guess that just about covers it.


There Will Be Blood

I loved Boogie Nights. I loved Magnolia. I am very excited.


Saturday 3 November 2007

Enter Zuckerman

The Ghost Writer
by Philip Roth

Written in 1979 this is the novel that introduced the character of Nathan Zuckerman, considered by many to be Roth's alter ego. I first started reading Roth at the time of his superb 'American Trilogy' (I Married a Communist, American Pastoral, The Human Stain) all of which are narrated by Zuckerman. My worry was that reading a writer who was considered to be at the peak of his powers would lead to disappointment when I went back through his bibliography. Whilst there is no doubt that Roth has continued to grow as a writer there is so much to admire at various stages of his career and reading this slim volume there is so much to chew on and admire with the arrival of this seminal character in American fiction.

The novel depicts a night spent by the 23 year old Zuckerman at the house of his literary idol E.I.Lonoff (if Zuckerman is Roth then Lonoff is Bernard Malamud. Apparently). Also in the house with Lonoff and his wife Hope is a young student Amy Bellete who bears a striking resemblance to Anne Frank. Zuckerman is after a father figure after relations with his own have been strained by a story he has recently written. But in only 24 hours he gets a lot more than he bargained for. In the first section of the book the men discuss writing.

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.

But the writer's life has left his wife at her wits end and provoked by the continued presence of Amy, Hope Lonoff hurls a wineglass at the wall after dinner and begs to be thrown out. After this scene and forced by the late hour and poor weather to stay the night in Lonoff's study Zuckerman relates to us how he has offended his father with a story drawn from his own family which seems to show Jews as greedy. Later in the novel he will come to realise that to be free to create the art he wishes he may have to sacrifice something. Whilst searching this study he comes accross a quotation form Henry James.

We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

Inspired by this we have the most extraordinary section of the book as Zuckerman imagines a whole new life for the young student upstairs that so resembles Anne Frank. It is this kind of invention that can make Roth so thrilling to read, written with such vigour and bravery. There is still a lot of early Roth humour here as well.

Virtuous reader, if you think that after intercourse all animals are sad, try masturbating on the daybed in E. I. Lonoff's study and see how you feel when it's over.

All in all it is a fascinating introduction to a character who has appeared in 9 books now and I can't wait to see how he has developed for his final appearance in Exit Ghost.


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