Tuesday 30 September 2008

'Everybody knows how persuasive and treacherous fantasies can be'.

I wrote almost four months ago with my thoughts on reading the first 400 pages or so of John Cheever's Collected Stories. Well here's part two. You'll see from the picture on the left that my copy now has some lovely creases down the spine, there are plenty of pen marks and post-it's to mark those memorable passages and a sense of achievement on my part for having got through them all. I don't mean that in a bad way, far from it, but to have read almost 900 pages of short stories along with everything else this year I consider to be no mean feat. The man who deserves the real accolades is Cheever himself of course. I'll admit to not knowing much about him before reading these stories other than that he was a contemporary of William Maxwell and that he wrote The Swimmer. The tiny bits of biog I have picked up along the way (his alcoholism and struggles with his sexuality) have already shed a new light on many of his stories, but whilst reading them I was hoping to bring a fresh eye to 'the Chekhov of the suburbs'.

I noticed a return to some of the themes of his earlier stories initially. The malevolent power of a woman in The Music Teacher, whose eponymous villain is cast in a witch like role, exerting some kind of occult influence over the life of the narrator before meeting a violent end in the story's climax. There are several men in unhappy marriages; one beset by visions in The Chimera, as a means of finding solace from his abusive wife. Many of his stories are about change and The Seaside Houses shows brilliantly the influence of a building on its occupant as our narrator finds himself first fascinated by the traces left by the owners of a house he rents in the summer and slowly finds his character changing in line with what he has supposed about this other man.

Then there are the more experimental stories like Metamorphoses which is made up of four short tales of just that, beginning with Larry Actaeon who suffers a fate similar to his classical namesake and finishing with Mr Bradish who in his efforts to give up smoking finds himself suffering from hallucinations: the people he encounters taking on the form of various cigarettes, which is funny at first but will end with him being carted away by the police after attacking a small girl. Or A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear in which he lists those elements he wishes to eliminate from his fiction (many of which he returns to in later work): 'All scornful descriptions of American landscapes', 'All lushes' and rather hilariously 'All parts for Marlon Brando'.

He became famous as a chronicler of suburban life; the politics of society, the rounds of cocktail parties, the glances of men on station platforms. Showing, I think, the falsity of the set-up and indeed the limitations of living that life. That is why there also seem to be so many stories about change. In The Country Husband he does both at the same time. Francis Weed is brought face to face with his mortality when his plane is forced into an emergency landing. When this experience rouses no interest on his return home he finds himself contemplating that most un-suburban of things: risk-taking (but in the most suburban of ways: an encounter with the babysitter). But this is Shady Hill

'There was no turpitude, there had not been a divorce since he lived there; there had not eve been a breath of scandal. Things seemed arranged with more propriety even than in the Kingdom of Heaven'.

It is another character that articulates the limitation I mentioned earlier:

'I've thought about it a lot, and what seems to me really wrong with Shady Hill is that it doesn't have any future. So much energy is spent in perpetuating the place - in keeping out undesirables, and so forth - that the only idea of the future anyone has is just more and more commuting trains and more parties. I don't think that's healthy. I think people ought to be able to dream big dreams about the future. I think people ought to be able to dream great dreams.'

Now I grew up in the commuter belt around London and I'm still waiting to read a great short story set in Orpington!

And then we come to The Swimmer, a short story that spawned not only a feature film starring Burt Lancaster (which asked 'When you talk about the swimmer will you talk about yourself?') but a Levi's ad. All from a 10 page story. It's difficult to know what to say about such a well known story that hasn't already been said, so I'll be brief. For me the most striking thing is how the ambition of Neddy Merrill's idea of "swimming the county" comes up against the creeping reality of his situation. We are the one who becomes aware that all is not well in Neddy's life, we are the one who realises the significance of the changing weather, even the changing season, and we are the one who begins to dread that moment when he reaches home because we know what he doesn't; that it will be empty. Brilliant.

Reunion is a story which almost trumps it actually. Incredibly short, but one of those which seems perfect; no more or less than it should be, containing fantastic character and seeming to say so much. What it actually says is just enough to get your brain whirring in all sorts of directions. As a treat here's a link to a New Yorker podcast featuring Richard Ford not only discussing but also reading Cheever's story. As Ford says there; Cheever is a writer who 'somehow must be kept from slipping out our notice'.


Sunday 28 September 2008

Bincho Yakatori

So another year passes and on our third wedding anniversary it was time for another another meal out in town. My wife is in the middle of reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and so is a little obsessed by all things Japanese at the moment. That helped me choose which cuisine and the belt tightening that I think we're all feeling a need for at the moment meant we couldn't be too extravagant. A perfect compromise seemed to be this restaurant situated on the 2nd floor of The Oxo Tower. Nice venue with great views of the river (albeit through some scaffolding at the moment - but hey, it was dark, you couldn't really tell) and a menu which looked like it wouldn't break the bank.

Here's the blurb: In Japan the Ganko Ojisan are the keepers of the flame, acolytes who are devoted to the details of the fire. They have studied fire and learned its secrets, appreciate its subtleties and respect its temperament. They know the hottest fire is not the best fire. For them only the finest charcoal will do and that has to be bincho.

And what does that mean? Well the open plan kitchen shows you several of these 'acolytes' manning a long grill. It's like Japanese tapas with a selection of dishes available on bamboo skewers (minimum order of 2 skewers each time) as well as soups, salads and other appetisers too. There's a wide selection of sake, if you like that kind of thing, and lovely Asahi beer if you don't.

We started with a sashimi salad which had nice pieces of squid, seaweed and salmon but with a dressing so tart it made the leaves rather unpalatable. Our skewers included tuna, quails eggs, mushrooms wrapped in bacon (the combination of the last two like an English breakfast) and some plump king prawns. I believe in expanding your taste buds whenever possible and on the gamut of food programmes on TV at the moment I often see people rhapsodising about pork belly (which always looks like a load of fat to me). So we ordered some. Our waiter nodded approvingly, which seemed like a good sign, and I have to say that it was lovely. Soft, melt-in-the-mouth, tastiness.

After all that we had what they refer to as a traditional finisher; Ocha zuke—a mixture of rice and green tea served with Japanese pickles. A bit strange, ours was the version with seaweed and sesame, and it is literally a bowl of rice which they then pour green tea over. The pickles were a tiny amount of pickled seaweed and a dab of wasabi, so not much to get excited about, but it was quite refreshing. Japanese cuisine isn't famed for its puddings so we played safe with a layered banana cake (pretty, but a bit dry) and green tea ice cream and a baked chocolate dessert which was supposed to be served with mirin ice cream (a sweet rice wine) but actually came with ginger and honey ice cream.

The waiting staff were pleasant and helpful throughout, standing by with palm pilots ready to take the next order, or explain something to novices like us. We weren't blown away by the food but with prices starting from just £1 a skewer it's an inexpensive way to sample Japanese food in a lovely location. If you're on the South Bank and looking for something a little different, you could do far worse.

Bincho Yakatori's website


Thursday 25 September 2008

Buffer Zone

For the last two days I have woken to find my most recent post vanished into the ether. An unsettling experience. And a pain. So, I have a plan. The Buffer Zone. A suicide post, willing to lay down its life for the greater good. What a trooper. Just in case it survives I should give you something better to look at than the picture above so enjoy this:

Pre-Game Coin Toss Makes Jacksonville Jaguars Realize Randomness Of Life


Wednesday 24 September 2008

TV On The Radio - Dear Science,

TV On The Radio - Halfway Home

I am new to TV On The Radio so I have spent the last few weeks sampling their world. For those as green as me TV On The Radio (or TVOTR) are a Brooklyn based five-piece. There music is hard to categorise taking in as it does soul, electro, shoegaze, funk, doo-wop, free jazz and post-punk influences. I was initially intrigued by one description of them which invoked comparisons to David Bowie and early Prince. So I have been listening to their three albums; Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004), Return To Cookie Mountain (2006) and the recently released Dear Science. I won't go into too much detail about the first two. Desperate Youth is crammed full of ideas and influences which don't quite come together perfectly but are a hell of an introduction to a newbie like me, Cookie Mountain is a giant leap forward production-wise; a huge sonic assault of an album which attacks you from all angles. And Dear Science sees them bring the ideas, influences, production and music making intelligence together into their most cohesive release yet. It's extraordinary.

Just the opening track 'Halfway Home' contains Joy Division guitars, bouncy 'ba ba ba ba ba bum' backing vocals, and hand claps before a balladeering Bowie vocal lifts the song along with ethereal keyboards; but don't let all that beauty hide the fact that the lyrics are filled with dread and damage. What a start. The funky guitars on 'Crying' shouldn't blind you to the anger contained in lyrics like 'Time to take the wheel and the road/From the masters/Take this car, drive it straight into the wall/Build it back up from the floor.' Nor those lyrics spat out against the media on 'Dancing Choose'. In fact this album is filled with frustration, protest and the wish for change; all very apposite at his time of election in America.

The psychedelic 'Golden Age' yearns for a better future described by Kyp Malone's sensual falsetto vocal. And the unashamedly romantic 'Family Tree' with its simple piano accompaniment somehow manages to be so much more with strings, octave separated vocals and some skillful production from Sitek . Let's also talk about the lyrics that hint at something very dark indeed - 'We're hanging in the shadow of your family tree/Your haunted heart and me/Brought down by an old idea whose time has come/And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree/There's a hundred hearts or three/Pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep them young.' Come on Chris Martin, keep up.

How do you recover from that? With the full on funk assault of 'Red Dress' of course, 'Fuck your war!' they shout and jangling guitars and a big brass section lead us into a big dance number. 'Love Dog' sounds simple at first but is beautifully textured, the vocals built up in layers, whilst subtle strings and beats reminded me of Bjork. There's even the dramatic collision of guitars and drum and bass on 'Shout Me Out'. But there's real menace in 'DLZ' with it's opening line 'Congratulations on the mess you made of things' and what follows is a barrage of imagery backed up by a religious sounding organ. To round things off there's the filthy 'Lover's Day' which comes on with all the pomp of a marching band and delivers lyrics that would probably make Prince blush.

It's a shameless end to an exhilarating album filled with musical invention, intelligent and politicised lyrics and top-notch production. Sitek seems to have found the right balance with this album; where Cookie Mountain sometimes collapsed under the weight it was carrying Dear Science is like a prize fighter, tipping the scales exactly where it needs to be, bouncing round the ring and landing blow after blow, leaving the listener punch drunk (sorry, enough metaphor, I should leave it to Tunde Adebimpe). That's the best I can do for now. It's very difficult to summarise how you feel when you hear something really exciting, you just want other people to hear it too. This is music chock full of energy, meaning and pure talent. Stop reading, start listening.

TV On The Radio - Golden Age


Sunday 21 September 2008

Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling

Mogwai - The Sun Smells Too Loud

There has always been that worry with Mogwai that the limitations of an instrumental band playing only guitars might restrict their development or ability to find new things to 'say'. How many times can you do quiet-loud-quiet-loud-quiet? The odd vocal embellishment recently hasn't added much to the brew and their last album Mr Beast was a bit of a let down so I'm glad to report that their latest is far, far better. It plays to all their strengths whilst developing their sound.

It opens with the brilliantly titled 'I'm Jim Morrison I'm Dead' a classic builder beginning with piano and adding layer upon layer of guitar, the melody developing in complexity as the song progresses whilst retaining the insistence of the central theme like a piece of classical music. The first single 'Batcat' is five minutes of heavy power chords, perfect for those who like the darker end of the spectrum. It's followed by 'Daphne And The Brain', a surprisingly tender piece which has a very filmic quality to it. It's one of many tracks which makes use of synthesisers, a recent weapon in Mogwai's arsenal which they're using to better and better effect. 'Local Authority' and 'Kings Meadow' are similarly quiet, like film underscore. 'The Sun Smells Too Loud' is another track using keyboards to great effect and easily the most upbeat on the album. Seven minutes of bouncing, almost catchy music, who knew Mogwai could do pop? 'I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School' (winner of best title) is another seven minute opus but haunting in its slow build, describing a fragile emotional state with the explosive climax you might well expect from its title. There is an air of melancholy which hangs over the album as a whole, typified by tracks like 'Scotland's Shame' and 'Thank You Space Expert'. Some may not like the fact that tracks like these never really get above second gear but there is lots of texture there. Like Sigur Ros there is plenty of joy to be had in allowing yourself to enter their soundscapes and the album closes with 'Precipice' another great example of what Mogwai do well; insistent, compelling instrumental music with plenty to say.

What I think I can hear in a lot of Mogwai's music is a quality which makes it essentially Scottish. That may sound a little ridiculous, but there is something in the melodies and sometimes the drumming that retains the sound of Scottish folk music whilst of course sounding nothing like that. I mention it only because it's one of the things that makes their post-rock stand above a lot of the other output in the same genre. There's something genuine about Mogwai which makes them worth listening to.


Thursday 18 September 2008

Does your partner ever say that you drive too fast?

I bet she doesn't say it like this. Former F1 driver Ricardo Patrese takes his wife for a spin...


Saturday 13 September 2008

raising the dead

The Lazarus Project

by Aleksandar Hemon

In 2004 Aleksandar Hemon was awarded a 'genius grant' by the McArthur Foundation for those who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." Hemon, who was born in Sarajevo but now lives in Chicago, only began writing in English in 1995 (having only started to learn it properly in 1992). Since then his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Esquire and two books, The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man, have earned him critical praise and comparisons to Conrad, Kafka and Camus amongst others. This latest novel, nurtured by that genius grant, is my first experience of his writing and despite my best efforts to be carried away by it, it never quite worked for me. It is a novel brimming over with ideas and creativity and yet it never quite took off.

The novel is made up of two stories. In the first we have Brik, a Bosnian now living in Chicago who is awarded a grant to help him research and write a book. Remind you of anyone?. Brik travels with his friend Rora, a photographer, across Europe to Chisinau in Moldova in order to find out more about Lazarus Averbuch, a Jew who fled the pogroms at the turn of the last century and emigrated to Chicago only to be shot by the chief of police for no apparent reason. It is Lazarus' story that is our second strand except that with so little material to go on it's really the story of his sister Olga and the climate of fear surrounding first the pogroms and later the similar feelings of terror created in Chicago by the rise of anarchism. This was the first problem for me as I was expecting to find out more about the real life murder of this simple man. As another reviewer has pointed out there are echoes of Jean Charles de Menezes and for many readers the spectre of terror in a city and scapegoating will be all too clear and resonant.

There are plenty of parallels between the two stories of course, something which Hemon fosters by having characters share names or physical attributes (a glass eye makes a couple of gruesome appearances) and by allowing Lazarus to actually intrude on Brik's sections as the book progresses. Brik's journey becomes one not so much of research but of discovery about himself. Through his travels he finds not only a subject to write on but is forced to confront the realities of life in the city he left behind before the siege of Sarajevo destroyed so many lives. His friend Rora knows all about it having worked with a reporter during the siege and witnessed the brutality of a Bosnian gangster named Rambo. Brik's incessant questions take their toll on him.

Let me tell you what the problem is, Brik. Even if you knew what you want to know, you would still know nothing. You ask questions, you want to know more, but no matter how much I tell you, you will never know anything. That's the problem.

And that's partly our problem too. Brik is a difficult narrator to like. His relationship with his wife, a successful brain surgeon, is unconvincing. His own friend doesn't seem to like him very much and in a similar way to the narrator in Rawi Hage's 'De Niro's Game', he is slow to develop in what is a relatively short book. The dawning realisation that he's a bit of a fraud isn't much of a payback for the reader. It is Rora who becomes the more interesting character oddly enough.

Hemon has been praised for his use of English with words like 'fresh' and 'lyrical' cropping up regularly. He certainly has a way with a phrase like the Bentley he describes; 'the seats made of leather so fine that you could hear the spirits of the slaughtered calves sigh'. Or the group of American soldiers he sees in Germany, heading to Iraq 'checking out the virgins, relishing their last hours before returning to a life of manual self-abuse, trigger happiness, and a possible limb by limb entry into eternity'. But the dark humour and flourishes aren't enough to cover a deficiency in our emotional involvement in the story. The story of Lazarus and his family could have been that emotional core but those sections of the book are much shorter and feel all too brief. It's a shame that the research wasn't allowed to take centre stage rather than the naval gazing of a writer finding his way. I'm sounding very down on it and I don't mean to because there is so much to admire in this book. I just couldn't really connect with it despite a rallying finish.

A quick gripe about the edition too. The chapters are clearly marked by black pages which show photos, some taken by Hemon's photographer friend Velibor Božović and others from The Chicago Historical Society. It is a shame that the publishers have elected to use such cheap paper as it really doesn't show the pictures off to great effect (the typeface is terribly printed as well, spotted like newsprint - but now I'm getting prissy). Whilst he hasn't quite managed the feat of bringing Lazarus Averbuch back to life Hemon certainly provides an insight into the life lived in fear and has marked himself in my mind as a writer to keep an eye on.


Thursday 11 September 2008

The Power Of The Black Box

So a little widget installed yesterday and lots of lovely people are accelerated through the blogosphere to my humble abode. Welcome. I thought I'd let those of you who find yourself here after using that ingenious Black Box a little bit more about what you can find.

It's mainly reviews so if you want to know what I thought of this years Mercury Music Prize winner when it came out, or the latest Batman film, or a Booker Prize contender, or if you want to discover something old, something new, something borrowed or something blue; there's all sorts to be found here.

It isn't just reviews though. If you like photography you can look at my little project and let me know what you think. In fact, let me know what you think on anything, everyone loves a comment.


Wednesday 10 September 2008

I hope they've got enough 50p's for the meter

Fingers crossed...


Tuesday 9 September 2008

The Mercury Music Prize 2008

So Elbow have just won the Mercury Prize for their album The Seldom Seen Kid. I'm well chuffed for them. Over the last 18 years they have produced four brilliant albums, writing passionate, witty songs, staying true to themselves and remaining a cohesive band throughout. Go and buy the album- hell, go and buy all four- I'll even give you the first taste for free...

Elbow - Weather To Fly


Monday 8 September 2008

Pan's Labyrinth

This is one of those films that I had been wanting to see for ages, convinced that it would be great after so many positive reviews and friend's recommendations. So why did it leave me so flat? Actually flat isn't the right word, I felt a bit dirty, like I'd just witnessed something really horrible. Which of course I had.

Guillermo del Torro's film is set in 1944, after Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War but during the period of repression against the lingering left wing forces, now acting as guerrilla units. A young girl, Ofelia, travels with her pregnant mother at the beginning of the film to join her new stepfather Captain Vidal, who is stationed at a mill in north-west Spain to battle said guerrillas. Ofelia has a passion for fairy tales and whilst there she discovers an ancient maze. Here she meets a faun who believes her to be a princess of the underworld and he gives her three tasks to complete in order to return there and be reunited with her father.

So that's the set-up. I had been led to believe that this was going to be an allegory of life under Franco's regime, of one girl taking refuge in fantasy to protect herself. But I was unseated almost immediately by the first scene which shows us the young girl lying on the ground bleeding. If you want a **SPOILER ALERT** then here it is but it's not really me spoiling anything, you know immediately that this isn't going to end well, you've just seen the ending. What carries us there is the tyranny of Captain Vidal who is irredeemably evil. A man who shows no concern for the health of his pregnant wife other than to tell the doctor that if he is forced to make a choice in saving one or the other he is to save his unborn son. A man from the shoot-first-ask-questions-later school of thought except that you can substitute the word shoot with smash-repeatedly-in-the-face-with-the-butt-of-your-gun-and-then-shoot. The violence in this film is graphic to say the least. Del Torro takes particular glee in gunshot wounds, sprays of red from the backs of heads as mounted soldiers fall from their horses. The torture scenes attempt to recreate the spine chilling tension of Marathon Man's infamous 'Is it safe?' but descend into just plain torture (and the fact that I can use those two words together in a sentence is worrying enough). You hope for something to lift you out of all this and I guess that comes with the ambiguous ending. But the very fact that it's ambiguous is problematic. If the fanatsy world that we see is the creation of Ofelia then the ending is depressing beyond belief. If however it is real, as del Torro himself has hinted in a subsequent interview, then it's not an allegory but a fantasy and what is the point of that? It just left me feeling that I'd watched an innocent young girl be terrorised and murdered. There's some solace to be gained I guess from knowing that that allows her to join her family again in the underworld but I live in the real world, and if you're telling me that people such as Captain Vidal are out there, that there is such a thing as an evil person then that's a very difficult message to take and a strange one to put out there. Somebody help me unerstand what I missed.


Tuesday 2 September 2008

children of the ship

Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh

The last sea-faring trilogy I read was William Golding's To The Ends Of The Earth (made up of Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below). Ok, it's the only sea-faring trilogy I've read but I really enjoyed it. Sacred Hunger, which shared the Booker Prize in 1992 with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (what a year!), is another fantastic maritime narrative so I had high hopes for the first instalment of Amitav Ghosh's projected trilogy; would I be left in the doldrums or with wind in my sails?

The setting is an interesting one: the Indian subcontinent in the 1830's finds the British East India Company exerting their influence through the trade in opium. Ghosh shows us the effects of this trade immediately through Deeti whose husband, as well as working in the local opium factory, is also an acknowledged addict or 'afeemkhor'. In a great set piece we are guided through the processing of opium as a distressed Deeti runs through the factory to find her husband. Soon she is widowed and in order to avoid the attentions of her brother in law is prepared to place herself on her husband's funeral pyre. It is a fate she will be rescued from and as she and her rescuer Kalua, a gentle giant, run from the pursuing funeral party they become the first of many who find themselves heading towards a ship, the Ibis.

Ghosh assembles a varied cast covering the wide spectrum of nationalities, castes and background that his colonial setting provides. A fallen aristocrat, an opium addict and a freed slave are just a few of the characters whose fate is tied up with the Ibis and the slow, inevitable progress of the characters towards her is like the flowing of tributaries into a river, growing and developing as they move until combined, they head out together to sea.

The Ibis is as strong a character as any of its passengers. Appearing first in a vision, Deeti sees it as an animal, a bird in flight, later the hold of the ship seems like a cave, the hammocks strung across it appearing like cobwebs. The ship is known as a 'blackbirder' having been used as a slave ship and it is a human cargo for her again at this time of tension with China and the constraints that places on the trade in opium. Most of those on board are going to the island of Mauritius as indentured labourers, the differences between them as regards caste or culture dissolved by their predicament. The women are the first to articulate their new status.

'...from now on there are no differences between us, we are jahaz-bhai and jahaz-bahen to each other; all of us children of the ship.'

That short extract gives you a taste of the exotic language employed. I wrote recently about how the wealth of research condensed into Michael Chabon's 'Gentlemen Of The Road' had lead to the text groaning under the weight of obsolete words. But given the scale of this novel Ghosh's peppering of the text with exotica, whilst at first creating a disorienting effect similar to reading the nadsat language invented by Anthony Burgess for his teenagers in A Clockwork Orange, slowly grows into a rich and exciting language of the period and in particular the language of those that live on the water.

'From the silmagoors who sat on the ghats, sewing sails, Jodu had learnt the names of each piece of canvas, in English and in Laskari- that motley tongue, spoken nowhere but on the water, whose words were as varied as the port's traffic, an anarchic medley of Portugese caluzes and Kerala pattimars, Arab booms and Bengal paunchways, Malay proas and Tamil catamarans, Hindusthani pulwars and English snows - yet beneath the surface of this farrago of sound, meaning flowed as freely as the currents beneath the crowded press of boats.'

The ship's first mate Crowle has a true sailor's vocabulary ('Pander, y'spigot-sucking gobble-prick. With all the wide welkin around us, why d'ye always have to be beating the booby right here?). The man he's speaking to there, Baboo Nob Kissin (whose name is enough to raise a smirk I'm afraid) has the kind of broken English perfect for double entendre but flirts dangerously with the 'Yoda' problem, where disordered syntax can make it all sound a little ridiculous. But with such a broad pallet Ghosh is able to show the full range of diversity on board with differences in class, caste or station indicated by the words or language used to communicate.

As befits a novel of this scale we are able to look at the wider world. The period is perfect territory for a view on the politics of colonialism, trade and that notion of freedom which is so tested in an era where slavery is coming to an end only to be replaced by the subjugation of people through addiction. It is a place from which we can look both backwards and forwards of course and it is this ability which means the writing has not only a historical significance but a resonance for the times we live in now.

'The truth is, sir, that men do what their power permits them to do. We are no different from the Pharaos or the Mongols, the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this presence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.'

It is that which means that the Ibis trilogy could be not just fantastic storytelling but an important comment on our history.


Monday 1 September 2008

The Wire - Season Four

Well, season four has completely blown me away. Building on the achievements of the previous three seasons it adds a new dimension which you might say was previously lacking: genuine emotional involvement. As I've said before the writing and the detail contained within it had made us interested in the characters and to care about them too. But by focusing on the education system, and a group of eighth graders in particular, it forces us to really worry about a group of children growing up in a city which has already shown that for some people the only opportunities available are different ways to ruin your life.

A hotly contested mayoral election is the main event in Baltimore. Tommy Carcetti may be the wrong colour to be mayor but by speaking to the right people and genuinely trying to engage with the voters he puts himself in a real position to challenge that. Aiden Gillen, looking immediately more comfortable in his role this series, shows with lip-smacking relish the contortions necessary to move ahead politically in a town with a black majority. Spin, sleaze and backhanders abound. It's a bit like here in England. For the police meanwhile, with Barksdale back inside, Marlo Stanfield is the target and the question that plagues them is how he has managed to wrest so much control of the corners without stacking up bodies. Stanfield's two enforcers, Chris and Snoop, are genuinely frightening with their cold detachment and in much the same way as Javier Bardem terrorised those he met in 'No Country For Old Men' whilst carrying a pneumatic cattle gun, they stalk anonymously through the vacant houses armed with a nail gun and a tub of lime.

Jimmy McNulty is almost entirely absent from the series (maybe Dominic West was busy doing one of his theatre jobs in the UK) which is a bit of a shame. Even in the scenes he is in he is a changed man, on the wagon and working hard to be a family man. Bunk keeps us going with his inimitable wisdom but the focus of this series really is with the children. Prez and Colvin having both left the police department are working in the school system; Prez as a teacher and Colvin working with a special group of corner kids to find the way to integrate them back into the classroom. It is a rude awakening for both of them and for us as viewers too. Lt. Daniels later says that he 'had a good education now that I think on it'. I found myself very grateful for mine as I watched these children struggle. It isn't just within the school system that we see the importance of mentoring and nurture. On the street the entrepreneurial Bubbles is trying to help a young boy himself, but there's a reason why they call it the school of hard knocks.

As I've said, it really is all about the children, and the four main actors (pictured above) are a credit to the series. Each have their own problems and seem to be following a trajectory. As a viewer I found myself desperately trying to change the course of that trajectory by thought alone, like a horror movie fan screaming 'don't go back into the house'. I really cared, and that is due largely to the performances. It isn't that these children are innocent and deserve our protection; it's precisely because they aren't innocent and yet still deserve our help and protection that shows the maturity of this series. I've barely scratched the surface here, you'll just have to watch it and educate yourself.


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